Fire Chief J. Keith Harris of the Rocky Mount (N.C.) Fire Department recalls his introduction to swiftwater and flood rescue with vivid clarity. On the night of Sept. 15, 1999, Hurricane Floyd, a powerful Category-4 storm had been hovering off the coast of Florida. It finally inched north and made landfall at Cape Fear as a Category-2 hurricane, unleashing an unprecedented tidal surge and inland flooding in Eastern North Carolina. On its way up the East Coast, Floyd left a wake of death and destruction across 10 states.
“I had been here 20-plus years before Floyd hit and I had never been in a boat as part of the execution of my duties or needed to put firefighters into boats,” says Harris, who was an assistant chief at the time. Located approximately 100 miles inland from the Atlantic coast, Rocky Mount had experienced hurricanes, but primarily as wind events. “In terms of a risk assessment, flooding was not a high priority,” he says.
But flood it did. A record 15 inches of torrential rainfall fell on the already rain-soaked eastern North Carolina floodplain in less than 24 hours, plunging 6,500 square miles of the state under water, including eight square miles, or 22%, of Rocky Mount.
“The Tar River looked like the Colorado River,” Harris says. “It was moving that swiftly. Areas of town had 15 to 20 feet of water, with whole neighborhoods full of people retreating to their rooftops like they did in Katrina. It was a recipe for disaster.”
Calls to the 911 center came in so quickly the system was overwhelmed. “In terms of dispatching resources, triage was something as simple as, ‘Is the water up to your knees or your chest? Are you in a single-story home, or can you retreat to the second floor?’” Harris says. Commandeering a small armada of boats from the private sector, firefighters did the best they could, performing as many as 750 water rescues. “Those were not non-emergency evacuations. Those were rescues.”
Although the official federal death toll attributed to Hurricane Floyd was 57, a more accurate count puts deaths between 80 and 100 (for example, if a man died when his automobile was swept away by flood water, federal statistics would consider that an automotive death). There were 35 deaths in North Carolina, 11 of those were in Rocky Mount-Edgecombe County. “Hurricane Floyd was a wake-up call for our department and for the state of North Carolina,” Harris says.
It also was a wake-up call for public safety personnel nationwide. Television news reports were filled with images of firefighters in bunker gear who were clearly scrambling to improvise ways to rescue people from excruciatingly dangerous floodwaters. The deaths of many victims were compounded by the lack of specialized technical-rescue equipment and training needed to perform swiftwater rescue operations safely and effectively.
In February 2000, as a result of the high death toll in Hurricane Floyd, Congress held its first hearings that focused exclusively on issues related to floodwater rescue. During the hearings, Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), a former San Diego lifeguard, said, “You don't expect a firefighter to show up in full turnout gear and get in and around a water environment. As a lifeguard, I cringe at the threat to their safety doing that…. This is not a program that you just take people off the shelf and have them go do river rescue…. You do not put a rescue vest on somebody and make them a lifeguard or a river rescue person.”
And while Hurricane Floyd was a wake-up call for the East Coast, swiftwater rescue is an old problem.
P. Michael Freeman was named fire chief of the Los Angeles County (Calif.) Fire Department in 1989, near the end of a prolonged period of drought. Historically, droughts in Southern California end with deluge, and the beginning of the 1990s was no exception.
“Even in arid communities where it doesn't rain that often, when it does rain, there can be a lot of rapid runoff, with people trapped in rivers and flood-control channels,” Freeman says. “It's a matter of risk and threat identification and then trying to determine what the appropriate role is for the fire department, what training, and what equipment will be needed. It was clear that we were going to be called for incidents like this. Firefighters are going to try to do something and I wanted them to be as safe and effective as possible once they were sent there, which led to our fledgling swiftwater rescue program back in 1990 and 1991.”
A series of deadly storms in 1992 transformed the usually dry 450-mile-long flood-control system in Los Angeles County into a maze of flash floods in concrete-lined boxes. Fifteen-year-old Adam Bischoff slipped and fell into the torrent. As he was swept 10 miles downstream from one response jurisdiction to another, news cameras caught his plight. For lack of basic throw bags, police officers threw Bischoff a garden hose. And firefighters repeatedly endangered their own lives by dropping ropes to the boy from the upstream side of bridges, one of the most dangerous and ineffective locations to attempt a swiftwater rescue. Although heroic, it was clear that Los Angeles lacked a response plan to rescue free-floating victims who were moving downstream rapidly. Bischoff eventually was caught in a “strainer” — vegetation clogging the channel — where he drowned. His death became a rallying cry for change.
“For too long, too many fire departments have viewed water rescue as an ancillary service, or something that is not seen as mainstream,” Freeman says. “When in fact, when confronted with it, there's no margin for error. These incidents may be infrequent, but when something major does happen, you may be dealing with multiple rescues and there may be a widespread problem that leads to mutual aid. That involves reaching out to your surrounding communities, and maybe even to the state to see what capabilities you can have.”
Sparked by the deaths of Bischoff and at least 18 others who died in Southland rivers, arroyos and flood-control channels in February 1992, the Los Angeles County Fire Department expanded its swiftwater-rescue program. It took the lead to develop a comprehensive, multiagency, regional swiftwater rescue program that was comprised of swiftwater-rescue teams from a dozen agencies, including firefighters, lifeguards and police. Since 1993, swiftwater-rescue teams have saved scores of victims trapped or swept away in fast-moving floodwater.
Los Angeles County's multiagency swiftwater-rescue program became a model for California, which organized the nation's first statewide network of swiftwater- and flood-rescue teams in 1995. The California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, Fire and Rescue Branch, supports 13 Type-1 swiftwater-rescue strike teams, maintains a roster of additional typed swiftwater-rescue teams, and manages operations in major floods where state mutual-aid resources are needed.
“If you're going to have water-rescue capability, you've got to throw enough support behind it to not just make it a paper tiger,” says Harold Schapelhouman, fire chief of the Menlo Park Fire District in northern California. Prior to being named chief in January, Schapelhouman served in special operations as task force leader of CA-TF3, one of California's eight/OES-sponsored urban search and rescue task force teams.
In addition to structural collapse, CA-TF3 supports a swiftwater rescue component that has been deployed statewide numerous times, and FEMA deployed it during Hurricane Katrina.
“You've got to make this program real,” Schapelhouman says. “Are your people certified and qualified? Have you properly trained and equipped them? How many people do you have? How many people do you need? Saying yes to this kind of rescue program means more than putting on paper that we've got this capability. It means a lot of different types of training and equipment. Our guys have to pass an annual swim test, plus they need Swift Water I (SRT I), at the minimum, for team participation. Many also have SRT II, helicopter aquatics, inflatable rescue boat operator, power watercraft and airboat training. It's a huge commitment on the part of the agency and the individuals who choose to do this.”
The majority of swiftwater- and flood-rescue programs around the nation have been built the hard way, Schapelhouman says. They've been pushed by line personnel who recognize the need for specialized training and equipment. Running a program like this is exponentially more difficult without the chief's support. The responsibilities include annual maintenance cost of the equipment, ongoing training, and cycling in new personnel who have to be certified to a certain level. “You've got to be able to maintain a program for the long haul, or you need to get out of the business.”
Schapelhouman calls swiftwater-rescue teams the special forces of technical rescue, with personnel and equipment that is fast, light and mobile. Incidents involving swift water, including floods, are powerful, dynamic events and time is of the essence, if lives are going to be saved. “Basically, the fire service needs to look at special operations for water rescue in a new way,” he says.
Montgomery County (Md.) Fire and Rescue Service Deputy Chief Steve Miller shares those concerns. Miller manages the Cabin John River Rescue and Tactical Services Team. The River Rats, as they are called, respond year-round to challenging swiftwater rescues on the Potomac River and can respond to major floods regionally, statewide and nationally.
“For many years, very few chiefs had a clue about special operations, especially swiftwater and flood rescue,” Miller says. “Part of the problem is that 99% of these special programs have been built from the bottom up by firefighters on the line, which means that management didn't understand the value of these resources or what they can do. Flood- and swiftwater-rescue incidents have skyrocketed over the years, and more managers are becoming aware of these special rescue teams.”
One of Miller's concerns involves pre-staging swiftwater assets in advance of major storms and hurricanes. “For big events like hurricanes, events where you're fairly certain that a storm is going to have a major impact on your community, these assets must be pre-deployed,” he says. “This is one glitch that we're still working on nationally. You're going to get burned from time to time. You're going to call back people and it's going to be for nothing if the storm doesn't pan out. You're going to have to be willing to accept the fact that you've gotten burned two or three times, but that one big time, when you're out there saving lives, reinforces the importance of pre-deployment.”
Drawing from reliable intelligence from the National Weather Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and other agencies that track storms and anticipate flood levels is an important piece of the pre-deployment puzzle.
“Pre-deployment has to be covered with good judgment and intelligence,” Miller says. “Our special-ops planning group handles this any time there's a significant storm or hurricane coming our way. They crunch the numbers and work on the time line.”
Cabin John Fire, which can field two Type-1 swiftwater rescue strike teams, is well known for its boat operations and for having some of the most stringent training standards in the nation. From a management perspective, Miller is quick to stress that one size does not fit all when it comes to water rescue.
“If you've got an operations-level boat that can go to ponds and lakes, do not dispatch that to a flood- or swiftwater-rescue incident in your area or some other jurisdiction,” Miller says. “Training and equipment must be suitable for the environment in which you'll be dispatched, and you've got to educate city and county officials and emergency managers about the distinctions. Through the National Incident Management System, everyone needs to understand just what type of team to call in. The last time we had a lot of flooding, a regional manager called to ask me what I could give him. I told him we could send a Type-1 strike team, and he asked, ‘What's that?’”
“People still do not truly understand or appreciate what a tactical resource swiftwater rescue assets can be,” Schapelhouman says. “And by this, I mean smaller groups of people, fast, light and mobile, who can get in by air, who can quickly inflate and insert boats. We need the mobility that these teams can offer in smaller configurations. Most people never apply the same logic to water rescue that we use for firefighting, for moving cover, for geographic area, for backup, and we need to change this.”
In Rocky Mount, Chief Harris has been working on those changes. For the seven years following Hurricane Floyd, he has lived and breathed flood rescue and recovery.
“In terms of training, we started out with baby steps, with swiftwater-rescue awareness level training for all fire personnel,” Harris says. “When we completed that, we expanded the program and trained police officers, [and] public works, utility, water and transportation department employees, and other city employees. In a disaster, these folks are out in the field and we felt it was vital to at least equip them with a heightened sense of awareness for their own protection.”
They then provided operations level swiftwater-rescue training to all firefighters, including new employees going through fire cadet training. The department conducts annual continuing-education training that reinforces the floodwater rescue model. They also developed improved stream gage monitoring and flood-safety education programs. In 2000, the department launched a specialized swiftwater-rescue team.
Harris' swiftwater-rescue team now has 19 members, all at the technician level. And, he says, the command staff is trained to manage flood events. The cost of building the program has been partially offset through the North Carolina Emergency Management Office, which, like OES in California, has developed a statewide network of swiftwater rescue teams that are pre-deployed in advance of major storms and hurricanes.
Flooding remains the leading cause of weather-related death nationwide. And although improvements have been made throughout the fire service, Harris believes that much more needs to be done to provide firefighters with the skills needed to save lives in the aquatic environment.
“Awareness and even operations-level training for swiftwater rescue really ought to be part of our national firefighter certification process,” Harris says. “This should be as basic as learning to tie knots, how to put up that ladder, how to deploy fire hose, and how to wear breathing equipment. Fire-rescue personnel need to know how to respond to flood emergencies and think beyond their own safety.”
For Steven Orusa, deputy chief of the Waukegan (Ill.) Fire Department, developing a regional response capability for water-rescue operations offers agencies a means of not only sharing resources and building on mutual technical-rescue strengths, but securing grant funding as well.
“Two years ago we brought together all of our special operations resources for Lake and McHenry counties,” Orusa says. “It's very good for grant funding applications, because they are looking for how large of an impact the grant money is going to have. When you apply with a two-county area that affects a whole emergency management region, this gives you more credibility and makes it more likely that you may receive grant funding.” Orusa serves as team leader of the Lake and McHenry County Dive Rescue Team, which handles swiftwater, ice and dive rescue and recovery operations.
As the Aug. 2 I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis reminded the rescue community, there are times when aquatic operations are about recovery, not rescue. But for a single event where there's no disaster declaration, the results are just as painful for the surviving family members.
“Many families who lose loved ones in the aquatic environment in incidents that are not considered crime scenes or disasters are told that no public safety agency will manage recovery operations for them,” Orusa says. “If we do not recover the victim, we're walking away from the family, and that's inappropriate. Recovery operations are an important service to the families who have lost loved ones in water.”
Like rescue missions, recovery presents hazards to rescuers. However, new technology, including side-scan sonar, is improving the success rate of recovery missions, and reducing the time involved, as well as the danger to rescue and recovery personnel.
“We've got operators out there who are willing to do whatever it takes to rescue and recover victims in water incidents,” Orusa says. “The challenge is supporting them. If I've got a five-man sonar and dive-rescue team that can handle the operation, but because of red tape and legal mumbo jumbo they can't service a family, there's something wrong with the system. Our industry needs to evolve and service these families fully. Leaving them to try to find the remains of their loved ones in one of the most dangerous and unforgiving of environments is not servicing that family. Sometimes the authority having jurisdiction exhausts their resources, and that's OK. But we can know where to find solutions for the family. And we can and should support them.”
So are the lessons learned from large- and small-scale water disasters leading to preparedness? In some cases the answer is yes. An increasing number of fire departments nationwide are developing swiftwater- and flood-rescue programs. Unfortunately, only a few states, including California, North Carolina and Texas, have fully understood the need to organize and manage a statewide network of swiftwater- and flood-rescue strike teams that can be quickly activated and pre-staged in advance of major floods and hurricanes, to assist when local areas get overwhelmed. Adding to the dilemma is a federal government that still views floodwater rescue as a local problem, even though recent events like hurricanes Floyd, Isabel, Ivan, Frances and Katrina have demonstrated how rapidly and absolutely a local jurisdiction can be overwhelmed when it comes to life-saving in the flood zone.
Without Hurricane Floyd, “we would not have the swiftwater-rescue program we have now,” Harris says. “Some people still think that a pick-up truck and a jon-boat (makes) a swiftwater-rescue team. But firefighters and victims alike are getting killed that way. We didn't have a flood problem in Rocky Mount before Floyd, and we haven't had one since. But research has shown that the chance of a firefighter getting killed in an incident involving swift water is 400 times greater than getting killed in a structure fire. That's how dangerous this is.”
Nancy J. Rigg is an internationally recognized author, documentary filmmaker, public safety consultant, and champion of swiftwater rescue. She recently was presented with the George B. Walter Service to Society Award from Lawrence University, Appleton, Wis.
Revising National Response
Since Hurricane Katrina, the National Response Plan has undergone extensive revision. This includes Emergency Support Function 9, which has traditionally focused on Federal Emergency Management Administration's urban search and rescue assets responding to collapsed structures.
Under the new framework, state and local agencies still are responsible for swiftwater- and flood-rescue operations, with the National Emergency Management Association offering state-to-state mutual-aid resources nationwide through pre-planned and coordinated Emergency Management Assistance Compacts. One caveat is that a governor must declare a state of emergency before the EMAC process can be initiated.
“We were directed to change and broaden ESF 9 to include all federal search and rescue,” says Mike Tamillow, FEMA's USAR section chief. “I was concerned that this would be overwhelming, because there are so many kinds of search-and-rescue missions, from mine rescue to cave rescue to avalanche, trench and dive rescue. So we narrowed the focus to four co-lead agencies: FEMA USAR, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of the Interior [specifically the U.S. Park Service] and the Department of Defense in two main areas involving the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which helps us with mapping and grid referencing.”
Dan Pontbriand, branch chief of emergency services for the U.S. National Park Service says that department is ready to help. “If the states are asking FEMA for assistance and it's a Stafford Act response where FEMA has 10 of their USAR teams en route and they need support, the Park Service is available to assist them with boats, force protection, low- and high-angle rescue specialists, swiftwater-rescue personnel, or whatever they need.”
Tim Gallagher is the operations group chair of the National USAR Response System. He views the changes enthusiastically but says there are questions to be answered. If an area is overwhelmed and specialized swiftwater rescue teams are needed, how does a department manage the operational integration of these resources? he asks. Fire chiefs and emergency managers need to be educated not only about what these resources are and the capabilities they bring by way of equipment and personnel, but also what is the appropriate means of integrating these resources into an operation to save as many lives as possible, he says.
For several years, FEMA has pre-staged resources to launch operations as quickly as possible during hurricanes. More FEMA assets were pre-staged prior to Katrina making landfall than in any other hurricane in history. This will continue, Gallagher says.
“With pre-scripted mission assignments we all know ahead of time, based on a given set of conditions, these are the resources that we will send, whether it's a Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane,” Gallagher says. “Even so, the states are supposed to pull this stuff, as opposed to the federal government pushing it onto the states. There's a fine line drawn here.”
Unfortunately, some fine lines leave substantial gaps in the system, and Deputy Chief Steven Orusa of the Waukegan (Ill.) Fire Department is keenly concerned about one of them.
“We've done a good job of creating systems to meet the needs of communities during major natural disasters including floods,” he says. “But what about the family that loses a loved one in a place where local public safety agencies have done everything they can to recover that victim, but they still need help?” Many areas of the country cannot mount aquatic recovery operations themselves and have no means of coordinating outside mutual-aid resources for singular emergencies. EMAC is applied during major, declared emergencies only.
In the Midwest, Illinois is leading an eight-state effort to implement the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, which provides a legal and organizational framework for deploying interstate technical rescue resources, including water rescue and recovery assets.
“There is currently no national, mutual-aid system that can provide agencies with affordable technical rescue assets for singular emergencies in the aquatic environment, including recovery operations,” Orusa says. “We're trying to resolve this problem.”
Through MABAS, communities will have a means to ensure that highly trained and experienced resources are available for aquatic recovery operations, instead of leaving families on their own to coordinate with sometimes dubious volunteer non-profit organizations that charge thousands of dollars, do not always work capably and safely within the incident command system, or maintain appropriate training standards.
To ensure the standardization of resources nationwide, the National Incident Management System's Integration Center Typing Committee is identifying specific team typing for swiftwater rescue and other technical-rescue disciplines.
“There's been a tremendous amount of preparedness work done on credentialing and standard setting,” Gallagher says. “This will continue to work its way down through the federal, state and local levels so that when the incident commander asks for a Type-1 swiftwater-rescue strike team, everyone will know what that is.” He says that this team consists of 14 personnel, boats, protective gear and specific equipment used in rescue operations.
“The credentialing committee is focusing on position description requirements for the squad leader, boat operator, helo-rescue swimmer, and rescue technician,” Gallagher says. “We're just about finished on the credentialing side of the house, identifying the specific requirements for the individuals.”
While FEMA's USAR team members are being provided with protective equipment and training to work on and around water, they will not be deployed as swiftwater rescue assets to augment local and state mutual-aid resources, even when areas are overwhelmed as they were along the Gulf Coast during Katrina.
“All task force rescue personnel must meet NFPA 1670 and NFPA 1006 standards for structural collapse technician, which includes awareness level training for water rescue,” Gallagher says. “The vast majority of task force members also have operations level training for swiftwater, as part of their local technical rescue requirements. And it's an absolute requirement for all task force members to have swiftwater-rescue awareness level training.”
Task force members are required to have swiftwater-rescue awareness training and equipment for defensive purposes only, but not allowed to serve as swiftwater- and flood-rescue assets in the flood zone even if they meet the higher standards as a local or state resource. Despite how this may seem, Tamillow says that it is not a contradiction.
“We fully understand the importance of swiftwater and flood rescue,” he says. “We're just trying to determine how best to handle this locally, within the state, and state to state through EMAC. We are working with our incident support team leaders to tie in with the joint field office, because there are tremendous swiftwater and flood-rescue resources at the local and state level nationwide that should be leveraged first. Everyone needs to be aware of EMAC, learn how to use it, and be able to call for it.”
One of the great ironies in the history of FEMA's USAR teams is that the only lives saved by task force members serving as federal assets have been in floodwaters, never collapsed structures. During Hurricane Floyd, swiftwater rescue trained personnel from PA-TF1 saved six victims in Rocky Mount, N.C., two in extremely hazardous moving water requiring the highest level of swiftwater-rescue technical skill. And during Hurricane Katrina, 6,582 people were rescued out of the flood zone in New Orleans by the teams, including eight California Type-1 swiftwater-rescue strike teams.
“The FEMA USAR task force teams have never had the level of success from a lifesaving perspective in any other disaster than we had during Katrina,” says Menlo Park, Calif., Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman, who served with CA-TF3 during Katrina. “CA-TF3 was directly and indirectly involved with the documented rescue of 792 victims, determining the location of 26 deceased individuals, the hasty search of hundreds of homes and multiple geographic areas, along with the primary and secondary search more than 2,700 residential structures, multi-story apartment complexes, elderly care facilities and one hospital.
“All the other events we've been deployed to, including Oklahoma City and Sept. 11, where we did body recovery only, we were celebrated as heroes. Here we were performing heroically, but in the end all of us were cast in a negative shadow associated with FEMA. To have accomplished so much and then to be told the performance was so poor, this hurt.”
The U.S. Coast Guard does not train its personnel at current industry standards for swiftwater and flood rescue. Until Congress takes action and provides both direction and funding to expand the FEMA USAR task force program and the Coast Guard to include a federal swiftwater- and flood-rescue capability that meets industry standards, the debate will continue about how best to handle lifesaving and recovery operations in floods, hurricanes and other aquatic emergencies.