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Swiftwater Rescue Techniques

Basic Reaching Rescues:

Although a very basic concept, "Reaching" is often overlooked as a practical means of effecting a rescue. In swift water, reaching is often complicated by the sides of the water channel and the eddy currents that are typically located in this region. An outreached arm can be used to grab a limb of a subject in any type of water. In swift water, the rescuer must anticipate the force and prepare for the jolt that will occur when a subject is grabbed. Belay lines or additional rescuers should be available to secure the rescuer and prevent him from being pulled into the channel. Reaching with an arm is limited to areas of minimal flow (i.e.  where a subject may be caught in a eddy but may be too week to escape.)  The reach may be extended by using one leg or a handy tree branch.

 A much safer approach than using a rescuers limb, is the use of the shepherd's crook. This tool is typically used in large community pools. The shepherd's crook can extend the reaching rescue upwards to 12 feet. The large "Hook" should be placed under the water surface and brought up under the subject's auxiliaries. Moving water will help to keep the subject inside the crook. When the subject is secured a pendulum motion should be used to pull the subject to safety. All rescue efforts should stay in force until the subject is well within a safety zone. The shepherd's crook can be used as an adjunct to a throw line where added help is needed to move the subject through the eddy currents near the sides of the channel.  

Basic Throwing Rescues:

When throwing a rope bag or a coiled line, the objective is to throw over or past the subjects shoulder so it will be obvious he should grab the rope. In swiftwater it is best to lead the subject somewhat on the downstream side. In still water the subject is rescued by pulling to retrieve the rope.  

In swiftwater applications, after the subject has grabbed the throw line, the force of the current is used to pendulum the subject to the side of the waterway. A dynamic body belay should be used to "gradually apply the brakes."  This gives the subject the best chance or maintaining a grasp on the line as the deceleration will occur over a longer period of time (less force). This is depicted in the figure above.  A second line may be needed to pull the subject through the helical water flow that may occur near the waterway's edge as is shown in figure 14. Rescuers with throw bags or rope coils must place themselves in such a way that the subject does not swing into another hazard (a tree, a drainpipe, a waterfall etc.). Also the rescuer must prepare for the force of the water pulling on the subject. For this reason the rescuer must be planted on a firm surface a safe distance from the waterway so that a jolt of the rope does not pull the rescuer into the water. A second rescuer to hold the first rescuer or a safety line attached to a secure anchor may be in order.  

In a rescue attempt multiple throw bag stations should be available to increase the overall probability of success. Also if a bad throw occurs (whether from a coil or a throw bag) quickly coil the rope into a large coil and reposition for another throw attempt. Keep throwing until the rescue is successful or the subject has moved out of range.  

The life ring is another rescue throwing device that is often used as an un-tethered float in still water. The throwing ring is often found on ship decks, piers, and boat docks where falls into the open water are possible. The ring is easy to grab which help the subject and the thrower. The life ring is thrown side arm with the ring in a horizontal position. The weight of the ring and the "Frisbee" effect of the flat surface help the life ring travel further than a throw bag or coiled line would. In swiftwater, the life ring is tossed with a rope tether which allows the ring to be retrieved for retries and allows the subject to be rescued if he does reach the ring. The major benefits of the tethered life ring is that the subject has a large item to see and grab. Also once the subject grabs the life ring he receives the added buoyancy of the ring itself.  

Another carry-over from basic lifesaving, is to throw anything that floats.)  (Also sometimes quoted as: "Throw everything - something will float!")  In still water, a floating object provides the subject an aid to keep himself afloat until the subject can make his own way to safety or further assistance can be rendered or located. In moving water, anything that is thrown must land within reach of the subject.  

Water Craft Rescues: 

If reaching and throwing can not (or have not) provided a successful extrication, the next choice is to use some type of water craft to extract the subject. The two water crafts used by the team are a inflatable raft and the simple boogie board. The boogie board is used as a special option to a Zip line. Although the raft can be used with its oars in still water or lake rescues, the raft is relegated to tethered operations only in swiftwater applications  

Any rescuer operating in the raft shall be fully equipped as a swimmer. A green cylume and a beacon shall be both engaged when near or in the water. Any and all rescuers operating in the raft shall be connected to the raft with some type of belay device that can be disconnected by the rescuer if needed. (Quick eject harness, etc.)  The rescuer shall keep his weight as low within the raft as is possible to minimize to probability of being ejected from the raft. The rescuer must be aware of debris floating and banging into the bottom of the raft. The raft can easily be torn from the bottom. The rescuer should stoop on his feet rather than sit on the bottom of the raft to reduce harm when obstacles are struck.  

The number of rescuers operating in the raft for a rescue shall be minimized (in general the number of rescuers in or close to the water shall be minimized). If possible the raft can be used with no rescuers if sufficient directions can be given to the subject. (i.e. A subject stranded on the top of his vehicle in the middle of a waterway who is not panicking can be instructed to sit on the raft floor and put on the life jacket that is tethered to the raft.)   

When approaching a subject stranded on an island (any surface that is not submerged) the rescuer must instruct the subject to not do anything until he is not told to do so. As in a cliff hanger rescue, directions must be stern and clear. A loud clear voice may be needed to be heard above the roar of the swiftwater. The rescuer must be ready for the subject to panic and to begin thrashing at the raft and the rescuer in a drastic attempt to save himself. Once stern instructions are given, the raft should be positioned to provide a safe approach. In general this will be upstream and to the side of any island. The rescuer and raft should never be placed downstream of a obstacle that can loosen and become free. (i.e. A vehicle that appears well stuck may float and tear through the raft once the subject jumps from the roof of the vehicle into the raft if the raft is downstream of the "stuck" vehicle.) An approach from directly upstream could place the rescuer in danger of entrapment if he is ejected from the raft.  

The general rules for a reaching type rescue apply to "reaching out and grabbing" a subject from the raft. Of course there is more involved in positioning the raft through communications with the systems people on shore, but "grabbing" the subject is similar. One must be very forceful when grabbing the subject. Be ready for a possible panic response where the subject attempts to "climb" the rescuer in an attempt to escape the waterway. If possible secure the subject by grabbing across the chest similar to the cross chest carry in lifesaving. After the subject is secure and the rescuer is sure he is not going to panic, further plans can be made for moving the subject into the raft. Remember at worst case the raft can be pulled back to shore with the rescuer holding the subject in the cross chest carry position.  

If the subject is cooperative, one can use his skills to enter the raft. However the rescuer should never release physical contact with the subject until he is within the raft and secured into a tethered life vest. If the subject is panic stricken or is to heavy to handle, the raft should be brought in with the rescuer supporting the subject's head out of the water as best as possible. If possible an unconscious subject should also be returned in this way to minimize the rough handling (the trip in the water is still very rough). If it is decided to pull the subject into the raft (needed when multiple subjects are encountered), dunking the subject just prior to pulling them over the raft wall will help lift the subject from the water by maximizing the initial buoyancy. Follow up by grabbing anything and pull the subject into the raft. It will not normally be glamorous but well accepted.

At times there may be a reason why the raft cannot be immediately retrieved: systems complication, moving debris, interference with another rescue, the raft is hung up on something. CPR, rescue breathing, or other life saving treatment should not be delayed waiting for the raft to reach shore. Although not in ideal conditions the best attempt to provide the most critical care must be given. The OL will use the criticality of the subject to aid in his planning and decision making process so advise him of patient status as soon as is practical.  

As a final rule, minimize the time the raft and rescuer are exposed to the waterway. Do not place the rescuer out in the water if the subject is known to be 20 minutes away.  

Roped System Rescues:  

If basic water rescue techniques are not by themselves sufficient, it will become necessary to extend the rescue using some type of roped rescue system. This may be a simple Zip line, a directional control line for a raft operating downstream (Simplified Flying Crane), a tyrolean, a haul or a belay system. The main advantage of a mountain SAR team is that the same systems used for ground rescue are applicable to water rescue. Considering that the goal in swiftwater is to keep the rescuer out of the water, experience and speed in operating rope systems will increase the probability of success and help maintain the safety of the rescuers.  


The Zip line is created by stringing a rope across a waterway with a 30 to 45 degree angle with respect to the main flow of the waterway as is shown in the figure above. If the Zip line is to be used as self help line or rescuer safety line, then the rope should be held taught approximately 1 foot above the normal flow height of the waterway. This height may be hard to judge if the water is choppy with a variance in height of several feet. Cylumes should be used to mark the two side of the Zip line.  

If the Zip line is intended as a passive line to capture the subject in the water than the rope should be somewhat slack and allowed to ride the surface as is shown in the figure above. In both cases once the rope is grabbed, the current will force the subject toward the downstream side of the zip lines. Members that are equipped with PFDs that have a tag line with a biner to attach themselves to the zip line so that it is not necessary for them to hold on with their hands.

If the zip line is being used as an attempt to passively snag a subject in the water (ie no rescuer is in the water, hoping the subject will follow the zip line toward the downstream shore), the success lies on the subject's ability to stay with the zip line all the way close to the downstream edge. One may treat the passive zip line as a technique to move a subject from the center of a channel to an area near the edge where a reaching rescue may be applicable. Rescuers staged near the downstream edge should be ready to reach, use throw bags, use the shepherd's crook or any other system that is applicable if the subject even comes close to the downstream edge.  

To increase the success of a rescue site, several zip line should be constructed in a serial fashion as is shown in the figure above. In this way if the first line moves the subject half way, the secondary system only needs to move him the other half. A passive zip line is useful if no swimmers are available or the waterway is extremely hazardous with plenty of debris. (Debris may damage or break the line but debris will typically be pulled over or above the line.)   

A more efficient and practical use of the zip line is to use the line with a tender. In this case the zip line is kept taut and above the average surface of the water (12 to 18 inches).  A rescue swimmer with a short tender line clips into the zip line with a biner. As the subject approaches, the swimmer enters the waterway and propels himself along the zip line to hopefully intersect the subject. Once the subject is encountered (grabbed as securely as possible cross chest is preferred but not always available), the swimmer and the subject will be forced along the zip line by the current to the downstream side. Wading rescuers or additional throw lines may be need to assist in the exit from the waterway. The figure above demonstrates the use of the tethered zip line.  

When waves and white water are high, a helpful aid is the boogie board. In this case a boogie board is also clipped into the zip line (on it own separate tender line  NOT THE RESCUER'S). The rescuer can ride the boogie board over waves and white water which will allow the rescuer to keep visual contact with the subject during the approach. Loss of visual contact during an approach due to tumultuous water is often a cause of a failed rescue attempt. (In basic lifesaving during water approaches swimming is done with the head out of the water to allow the rescuer to maintain visual contact during the approach.)  If the subject is pulled underwater the rescuer can make an estimate of the passing time so he can dive or reach down in an attempt to grab the subject. The rescuer may elect to abandon the boogie board to effect the rescue or to remain with the board for added protection. If the boogie board is abandoned, the board on its tether will follow the rescuer to the downstream side under the power of the current.  

Swim fins play an important role in the tender of the zip line. If the path of the subject is misjudged it may be necessary for the rescuer to swim towards the upstream anchor. If necessary he can pull himself along the zip line if needed. It is possible to have several rescue swimmers on the zip line at the same time to increase the odds of success. But as is the case with multiple tenders on a high angle evacuation the confusion and interaction between the rescuers also complicates the operation. The fact that rescuers are exposed in the water channel makes this a risky operation. Contraindications to this type of rescue would be excessive debris. Zip lines should be created in areas where the flow of the channel is predictable.  

A variant of the zip line is the Firehose Line. In this case the zip line rope is replace with a 50 foot section of Firehose that is fitted with a special pressure fitting which allows the hose to be inflated from a SCUBA tank. When the hose is supported on both sides by tenders it forms a floating barrier that can be more easily held by a subject whose grip has been reduced due to cold water exposure. Once the hose is grabbed the subject can pull himself along the hose to safety.  

Another advantage of the firehose line is that it can be used as a floating aid to a reaching rescue. The Firehose line can be inflated and floated out to a subject stuck in a hydraulic below a low head dam which would allow him to be pulled to safety. The team does not carry equipment to support the firehose line but the county truck does carry this resource. The main disadvantage of the firehose line is that it is not very portable and is bulky to operate.  

When available, a raft that can be inserted into the waterway and controlled from shore via tether lines provides a safer and more efficient system than the zip line. The raft is a small 9 ft sport craft that is easily inflated with hand pumps in less than 3 minutes. Once inflated the raft may be transported easily by a few rescuers. The raft is normally stored deflated, in a bag which contains the oars, the wooden floor boards, and one inflation pump. The raft has biners and webbing secured all around to all attachment points. The raft can be transported between rescue sites in the inflated position by placing it inverted on the top of a vehicle (be careful of damaging vehicle antennas).  

The raft is typically tethered in one of three configurations:  With 2 lines, with 4 lines, or with a taut line crane (similar to the flying crane used in tyroleans).

A two line tether may be used for simple narrow waterways with predictable and stable water flow. The tender lines are typically manned by land rescuer performing a body belay on the tether line. Multiple rescuers on each tether can also be used if warranted. A four line tether is used when the current is unstable or precise articulation of the raft is required to approach an island such as a stuck vehicle or a swamped water vessel. Be aware that the four tether lines do restrict the tender's ability to reach in the water.  

Each of these approaches assume that the edges of the waterway are available for use by the line tenders. Often times the edges are covered with foliage or other obstacles such as wall or inlets. If the edges are not available then the raft may be controlled in a "horizontal flying crane" which is depicted in detail in the figure below.  In this case a single taut line is connected close to the surface of the water. (the only contraindication to using the standard two tyrolean line approach is the time required to establish the system)   

A transport system of one line to each side is established to control the position of the tyrolean plate. A single line is attached to the raft, through a change of direction element at the tyrolean plate and is then fed back to a lower system (this may be a body belay if this is thought to be sufficient.)  The raft is then positioned river left or right based on the position of the tyrolean plate. The tender typically uses hand signals to the tenders to control the raft position. The location of the raft with respect to the tyrolean plate (downstream position) is regulated by the single lowering line.  

Once the raft is properly positioned for the rescue, the lower line can be connected to a haul system and the raft can be pulled back upstream. Be aware that if the raft takes on water the force needed to haul the raft upstream (or to retard its downstream flow) may be excessive requiring at least a 3:1 haul system and several rescuers to haul. The process still works with a submerged raft.  

Tended raft rescues require competent coordination. A technique must be established for the raft tender to properly request positioning of the raft. A land based Operations Leader should be assigned to control the positioning. Hand signals may be necessary if radio or voice communication cannot be utilized.  

When applicable a standard tyrolean can be utilized to extract a subject stranded on islands when time will allow the tyrolean to be constructed. In this case one can understand how teamwork will play an important role and practice in tyrolean construction and operation will become very important. If the subject can maintain his position without exposing himself to danger, the best system will be the standard tyrolean. In this case the rescuer is held above the waterway remaining out of the water completely. This would be an excellent system for evacuating the subjects stranded in a vehicle in a waterway when the vehicle is stuck but not submerged (some anchor lines may be needed to secure the vehicle first).  

The Static Flyaway:

The dive team and some SAR members have received special instruction in the use of the short line static fly-away (similar in effect to the mountaineering static fly-away evacuation with a tender.)  In this case a single (high reliability) static line is attached to the main top anchor within the airship. A rescuer, fully suited as a swimmer is attached at the opposite end of the rope through a sit and chest harness. Also attached to the end of the rope is a pre-rig attachment that is attached to a life ring. When needed the airship flies (as low to the ground as is practical) with the rescuer tethered beneath the airship. Using hand signals to the crew chief above, the rescue guides the airship toward the subject in need of rescue. When next to the subject the rescue grabs him and forces the life ring over the subjects shoulders. When given the signal to haul away, the airship lifts, the strap inside the life ring tightens, and the rescuer and the subject are flown out of danger. Once airborne, to provide extra security, the rescuer wraps his legs and arms around the subject. This is very similar to the military horse collar rescue fly away system.  

Swiftwater Medical Considerations

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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