I recently had a participant on a water-rescue programme who had worked with a rescue team out in Oman when they tragically lost a colleague in a flood-related incident. A skilled professional made a simple mistake, costing his life.
I’ve spent over 30 years working and playing in the swift-water environment. As much as I love it, and I really do, I quickly learnt that if you drop your guard for a moment, it will punish you quickly and powerfully.
As a water-rescue trainer joining a Mountain Rescue Team, it was a shock to see how people from many agencies operated around water environments. I attended several shouts where we worked alongside fire and rescue who were trained yet making dangerous decisions. An example would be people swimming across a swollen river (where someone had just drowned) right next to a bridge! After lots of work, it’s great to see how far things have moved on.
One thing I regularly notice is that those with the greatest experience seem to pay more respect to the water than those who have just completed a water-safety programme! It feels a bit like the middle-aged motorcyclist – super keen to get on the bike without the experience to keep them safe, experience which needs to be gained outside the confines of the controlled training environment to give good judgement in decision-making.
My approach to keeping safe is somewhat different to the modern world of risk assessment, where I see people following the process but still blinkered to the hazards. I don’t care if you wear a yellow vest or what colour helmet you have; to me safety is a constant awareness of what’s going on and what could happen. With such tight protocols the one weakness in the system is human nature.
So, what did my friend’s colleague do that cost him and his family so dearly? Attempting to assist people trapped in a car in flood water, he tied into a rope which became entangled and pinned him underwater. Simple mistake from a lack of knowledge.
I’m taking a few moments out in the hope that I can raise awareness of what I perceive as the big dangers you need to be aware of to keep safe in flood and swift-water situations.
I’ve come up with four key hazards that I think you should be aware of in particular:
- Bank collapse
- Shallow water crossing
- Contaminated water
You’re called to the scene of a water-related incident and, of course, put on your lifejacket so you’re safe to operate on the bank, right? Make no mistake, if someone falls into moving water, it will be extremely difficult to recover them safely. How many of you have actually swum in a lifejacket and fire kit? We train people in drysuits – usually wearing a buoyancy aid, which couldn’t be further from how it’s actually going to be. Now think winter, cold-water shock, heavy clothes. By training in dry suits people are actually reducing their concern around the water. Everyone I’ve had through a programme has loved the experience – until I ask for volunteers to give up the dry suit! This soon highlights the reality of what you’re dealing with. In a different world it would be mandatory for everyone to undergo real-world training of winter immersion, just like the forces do during artic-warfare training.
The big danger is bank collapse or sudden accidental immersion. It’s caught rescue workers out time and again and will continue to be the number-one hazard in my opinion.
Perhaps we need a different approach to training. It needs to be real-world where we raise awareness of consequences rather than teaching people to swim enjoyably. For example, what you really need to know is how to survive by swimming on your back at an angle to the current.
Rivers don’t collapse at the bank; they peel off many metres from the side as we witnessed during the tragic incident involving PC Bill Barker on the Derwent. The reality is that when you’re out and about in flood incidents, many of the roads and river are prone to collapse.
As we experience increasing flooding, if you’re involved in emergency work then you will encounter simple wading rescues to evacuate residents from areas of risk. Never underestimate the power of moving water, particularly in urban flood areas. Shallow-water crossing should be exactly that – shallow meaning below the knee. I’ve been taken off my feet in ankle-deep water; and once you’re over its almost impossible to stop moving.
The main hazard of shallow-water crossing is entrapment, which is always difficult to deal with. People are often caught out by changes in depth or increases in power once they have started to cross. Urban areas are unique in that the current at the bottom can be stronger than at the top due to the influence of drains, something which is very difficult to spot.
One-third of flood-related deaths occur in vehicles. Cars in flood water are extremely unstable. Modern cars float very well for a limited time after which they sink, and due to pressure it can be difficult for the doors to be opened. For this reason, I strongly suggest training at a site where you can place a car in water to appreciate how they behave and pre-plan for this eventuality. You can do this at Lee valley (North London), Cardiff, Teeside and Glasgow
However, what is not commonly highlighted is the danger of driving around in flood conditions at a time when roads are at risk of being undermined. If a road collapses under your vehicle, it’s not a good place to be. Use extreme caution with bridges, which regularly get taken out by floods, and when the river flows under or adjacent to roads. The chances are that the emergency services will be the only ones driving in these conditions.
Biological and chemical hazards. Flood water is filthy, and it’s relatively common for people involved with flood work to get sick following an incident.
Things like leptospirosis are relatively rare in the general population but common in groups with a high exposure risk. Good diagnosis is all about the presenting story. When I had it, my GP was brilliant but had never heard of lepto. Early antibiotics are essential if you want to avoid the high-dependency unit of a hospital. If you experience flu-like symptoms following a water-related incident then inform your GP. Many high-risk workers are given a card to take along to your doctor as below.
You can download these cards from www.water-rescue.co.uk along with many other training resources and videos.
It’s not the stuff you’ve risk-assessed that will catch you out; like my friend’s colleague in Oman, it’s the what you simply didn’t know or expect that will catch you out.
As water-rescue instructors we have a set of principals that we hope will keep you safe. Of all these the first, the mindset of always being proactive, is the most important. It means constantly looking for what might happen.
The following tips will help steer your thinking to keep you safe:
- Be proactive – consider the ‘what ifs’
- Always wear a lifejacket or buoyancy aid
- Always consider the impact of accidental immersion – what will happen in this eventuality?
- Always consider downstream backup – moving-water situations are dynamic
- Never tie directly into a rope
- Use floating ropes in water
- Keep ropes clean and remove any knots as soon as possible
- Never work along – yes this applies to downstream backup
- If you’re not happy then remove yourself from the situation
- In floods, roads, bridges and river banks are all prone to collapse.
- Always remember that moving water is immensely powerful and has the potential to move your tender, snap ropes and take down trees and buildings
- Regard riverbanks as unstable
- Take particular care at night
- Regard all water as polluted and a danger to health
Please also remember that just 15 years ago people were wandering around in the floods in their turnouts with perhaps just a lifejacket to protect them. We’ve come a long way very fast. But in this process not everything is perfect. The people developing protocol and policy are only as good as those who inform them. Much of our knowledge and practice has come from America, or from a white-water kayaking background. An example is that many services insist on using crotch straps on buoyancy aids for in water use. These are to be regarded as essential on lifejackets but create an entrapment hazard for the technicians in the water. And so still we’re not quite getting it right in practice. One wonderful thing about the modern era is that everything is videoed. You’d better be good or everyone’s going to see it on the internet. When I look at the internet there’s still plenty of rescue workers making those simple mistakes such as the one that cost my friend’s colleague his life.
For more information, go to www.water-rescue.co.uk
- Most drowning deaths happen within 3m of a safe point.
- Two-thirds of those who die in flood-related accidents are good swimmers.
- A third (32%) of flood-related deaths are in vehicles.
- Cold water reduces your muscle strength – 20 minutes in water at 12°C lowers muscle temperature from 37°C to 27°C, reducing strength by 30%.
- As little as 15cm of fast-flowing water can knock you off your feet and be enough to prevent you regaining your footing.
- If the speed of the flood water doubles, the force it exerts on you or your car increases four times.
- It’s a challenge to stand in waist-deep water flowing at just 2mph, but by 4mph everyone is washed off their feet.
- As little as 30cm of flowing water could be enough to move a car
- Flood water is always contaminated.
- Culverts are dangerous when flooded – the siphon effect can drag in pets, children and even fully grown adults.