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Training Guide Swiftwater Rescue

In years of heavy rains, Ventura County as well as other neighboring southern California communities, experience additional water hazards due to swollen water channels, flooded homes, overflowing rivers, flash floods, an increase in traffic accidents and problems caused by mud slides. Often times SAR personnel are asked to help offset the increase in emergency calls that the county handles. Swiftwater rescue response has been defined as standard protocol for the mountain teams within Ventura county. In severe cases of flooding, a local state of Emergency (possibly expanding to State and Federal States of Emergencies) may be declared.  

Water rescues are uncommon but their occurrence is devastating if a person, especially a child, is swept into rapid moving water. SAR personnel are trained in roped rescue systems that can be used to extract someone from a waterway. Some basic systems are used and practiced by SAR personnel so that they may be deployed quickly, efficiently, safely, and successfully. The tyrolean itself plays an important role in water evacuations. In addition to persons trapped in waterways (natural or otherwise) water rescues could include vehicles trapped attempting to cross waterways, people stuck on a high points of a waterway, missing persons in slow or still moving flood water, trapped individuals in homes succumbed to flood waters or mud, as well as evacuations of communities cut off by flood waters.  

Although it is not possible to predict when a water rescue will be required, moving water always seems to create an attractive nuisance even in the worst weather conditions. The presence of flooding water channels coincident with the release of children from school or during a day when school is not in session greatly enhances the chance that a rescue may be needed.

Swiftwater Characteristics:

Understanding the Waterway:

Flood zones typically follow prior burn areas but are not limited to these areas. Some of the county areas near the foothills in Ojai, Piru, Santa Paula , and Fillmore serve as large collection tributaries which can easily flood during high rain activity.  

One important element of swiftwater rescue is the ability to "Read the Waterway."  Reading the waterway is the ability to note potential hazard zones and zones that may be helpful rest zones or the best access and rescue zones.  

Four conditions are noted when rating the difficulty of a waterway:  the elevation loss (applicable in the foothills), the volume of water, the geomorphic makeup of the waterway, and the number of local hazards.  

River Orientation on moving water is made in two basic ways
  • Upstream / Downstream
  • River Right / River Left 

River orientation is done by facing downstream.  Facing downstream your Left is River Left. Facing downstream your Right is River Right. Behind you is Upstream and in front of you is Downstream, the direction water is flowing.

Helical Flow: Spiral shaped of a flow that moves along both sides of the river banks. It carries objects out from the banks into the Laminar Flow.

Laminar Flow: Moves parallel with the banks of the river. The fastest flow is in the center or on the outside of bends in the river.

Current Differentials: Variations in the coarse of moving water.

Elevation loss is intrinsically obvious but very hard to measure or gauge. The speed and average depth of the water are more applicable to rescue work. Water will flow fastest in the middle of a water channel where the depth is the deepest. An offset channel will force the faster water to travel toward on side or the other which is typically seen in waterway turns where often the waterway narrows and the intensity increases. A cross section of a waterway is shown in figure 1. Laminar flow is the majority of the water flow which follows the path of the waterway. Helical waterflow is waterflow that travels along the waterway in a recirculating pattern of continuous eddy currents.

These are also depicted in figure 1.  

The waterway should be considered cold enough to generate hypothermia. Rescuers working near or partially in water (especially during a rain storm) must be very aware of hypothermia conditions).  

Pillow: A swelling on the surface of the water caused by an obstruction in/or under the water.

Obstruction is usually just upstream of the pillow if the obstruction is underwater:

Obstruction is just downstream of a pillow if the obstruction breaks the surface of the water:

Hole: Created by water dropping vertically over an obstruction in the water:

Swiftwater Characteristics 2

Ventura County Sheriff's Volunteer Search & Rescue  |  Fillmore Mountain Rescue  |  Team 1
Mailing Address:  P.O. Box 296 |  Fillmore, CA  93016
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2005 Ventura County Sheriff's Volunteer Search & Rescue, Fillmore Mountain Rescue, Team 1

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site updated by Fillmore SAR Member Jude Egold