What a Swiftwater Rescue Captain Wants You to Know

What a Swiftwater Rescue Captain Wants You to Know

Captain Jamie L. Potter is one of three captains leading water rescue teams with Virginia’s Richmond Fire Department. The Richmond teams respond to more than 100 boating, wading, and driving accident calls a year, so her insights are hard-won. Capt. Potter tells us what we can do to avoid a rescue and how to make things easier should we need one.

According to her expertise, most rescues happen in floodwater. So, we’ll focus there.

“People who intentionally engage with the river are typically pretty well informed and prepared, so we don't get a lot of fishermen or paddlers,” Capt. Potter said. “But, people who are driving or walking around aren't always paying attention to the weather or the river.”

Rushing water sweeps people off their feet. It takes vehicles downstream and pins them where they’re not meant to be. It wraps boats around trees. In every flood, people need rescue. And far too many folks drown—rescuers among them. The good news is this: Floods are predictable, accidents are avoidable, and a little forethought goes a long way.

Know the Basics Have situational awareness. You are responsible for your own well-being. Know where you are and what’s going on around you. Watch for road signs warning you of bridges out and natural signs such as rising water. In short, pay attention.

Turn Around, Don’t Drown®. We’ve all heard it. It might sound silly, but it’ll save your life if you let it. If you come upon swift water—in your car or on foot—just turn around. The road may no longer be in place. Most vehicles can be washed away with 18 inches of moving water and those big tires on your pickup only add buoyancy to the equation. Nighttime and muddy waters complicate things further. Don’t drive around barriers and don’t drive into floodwaters. Turn around and get home safely.

If it’s flooding, get to higher ground. It’s common sense, really. But if the waters are rising, head up a hill if you can. Climb a tree or a structure if you must. And if you’re setting a camp or parking a vehicle, get above the high-water mark.

“Go to the highest ground that you can get to,” Capt. Potter said. “Even if you have to get into a tree, do that, because it may take us a little while to get to you.”

Knowledge is power. Floods are predictable, so identifying flood-prone spots near you and tapping into early warning systems are both easy steps to take. Check with your local emergency management organization about flood-prone areas, monitor stream flows and weather forecasts, and have alternative routes in mind before you need them. When you come across a public safety barrier, flooded road, or rushing floodwaters in the woods, just take a different route.

Capt. Potter recommends everyone give themselves the right tools to be safe, self-reliant, and successful. Learn to swim. Get trained up in basic first aid and CPR, it’s better to have these tools and not need them.

“If you’re going to be around water, think about the situations you could get into and learn how to get yourself out of them,” she said. Such skills require fitness, gear, and mindset. Her general guidance on gear is to at least have a cell phone—and a way to keep it dry—so that you can call for help and emergency services can dial in your location.

Preparedness Pays Off Most flood-related rescues and deaths involve vehicles, so stow the 10 essentials there. Capt. Potter also recommends every vehicle have a window punch hammer/seat belt cutting tool. “To get out of the vehicle, you may have to go through a sunroof or a window,” she said. “Tempered glass can be hard to break.”

And when the team gets to you, leave your things in the car. Just get out. Don’t put yourself and the rescuers’ lives in danger over an iPhone.

As little as 6 inches of swift water can sweep a person off their feet. In addition, floodwater typically obscures what lies beneath. In rural areas, the danger may be a root tangle or a drop-off. In a city, that danger may be an open storm drain cover. “The next thing you know, you're in the system,” she said. “People die in that kind of setting. So just don't attempt to cross.”

Outside of flood conditions, hunters and anglers often need to cross moving water. In these scenarios, use a stick to feel out where you're heading. For more, watch How to Cross a River with Steven Rinella and check out this guidance from Frostburg State University.

While in a boat, you should always carry and wear a PFD, a paddling helmet if running whitewater, a cell phone in a waterproof container like a dry bag, a bright item for signaling, and a throw bag. Have the 10 essentials with you, always. A float plan is also a mark of good common sense.

“If you’re in a boat and you get caught in a flash flood, make sure you have on your PFD and get to high ground as soon as you can,” Capt. Potter said. “If you go in, stay calm, get on your back, put your feet downstream, keep your butt and your feet up.”

If you panic or fight the current, you’ll lose.

“The idea is that you’re not expending a lot of energy because you don't know how long you’ll be in that situation,” she said. “Look downstream, keep your feet up to avoid a foot entrapment, and then use ferry angles to get out when you can.”

You can start to wrap your head around swift water swimming with resources from NRS, and Frostburg State University. But this is a complicated topic with life-or-death consequences, so preparation means real-world instruction and practice. It’s best to find a course and get trained up. Your local firefighters can probably point you to appropriate training, or you might start with nearby kayaking safety and rescue courses.

If you see someone in distress, call 911. “Be aware of exactly where you are so you can give them an accurate description of the person and the place,” she said. It could save their life. “And, if you have a rope and you can do it safely, get that out to them to keep them from going further downstream.”

When the rescue team shows up, remain calm and receptive to instructions. The team might toss you the end of a throw bag to pull you in or keep you safe until a swimmer can get to you. They may walk a raft out to you, sounding the ground before them with poles as they go to check for footing. They might deploy a DIBS boat with a jet drive motor so they can run rapids, debris, and skinny water. In rare cases, a helicopter may pluck you out of a bad situation.

"Every rescue is a little different. The most important thing is to not panic,” Capt. Potter concluded. “And just listen to our commands.”

In the end, being prepared means being knowledgeable, equipped, and paying attention. Do that and you can make good decisions for yourself and be a resource for others when it counts.

Feature image via Sam Lungren

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