Firefighters like adventure, we like to do things that are sometimes a little risky, and sometimes we do things that are really stupid. Today was my turn to get a chance to see why there are so many accidents and drownings involving swift water.
A lot of rain in the past fews days raised the water level in a small creek nearby and it looked like a good place to drop in a kayak and enjoy a float down some moving water. I called a friend and off we went. A few minutes into the ride we encountered a bridge that had water right up to the bottom, maybe only a couple inches of clearance between the water and the bridge. Fast water has a lot of power and I got to see the kayak hot the bridge, turn sideways and go completely underwater. Luckily my friend rolled out of the kayak and was not hurt. That was just the start of an hour long journey.
During that hour a few swift water rescue things went through my head. I had participated in several swift water drills but this was my first experience being totally under the control of the water. Even a small creek or ditch can become treacherous when you add the power of water.
At one point I grabbed onto a tree that had fallen across the creek, I thought that would be a good place to catch my breath since by this point we were separated from our kayaks that were floating ahead of us. When you grab a tree branch with a creek full of water behind it you get smashed into the branch, and it is far from getting a break. Letting go of the branch is not any better because you get pushed under water and you bang into all kinds of debris and branches.
Grabbing the tree reminded me that a rope put across swift water should not go straight across, but should angle towards the shore. If a rope goes straight across the creek a victim that grabs it will eventually be pushed underwater. A rope on a angle will allow the victim to follow the rope to shore while the current pushes them down stream.
Life jackets are good, and there is a good reason that we are required to wear them during swift water rescue scenarios and training sessions. I won’t complain about having to do that anymore. A life jacket while you are in swift water will save your life. It takes all of your energy to try and navigate around things while you are being pushed through the water, the life jacket eliminates the energy you use to stay afloat. Make sure your department has good quality life jackets and make sure they fit everyone.
Whenever you are doing something dangerous make sure you have a partner. Whether you are going into a burning building while working, or SCUBA diving on your day off, have a competent partner with you. If things go bad it is nice to have someone to help you get out of trouble.
Next time you get a call to rescue someone who got in trouble in some swift water don’t rush to call them stupid, they may be some adventurous firefighters that made a bad choice. We snapped a paddle around a tree branch, lost the other paddle, lost two kayaks for a while, bumped into branches, sticks, and rocks, but we didn’t need to call for help. Next time I will use better judgement, I hope you will too.