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What is a Swiftwater Rescue?

By Donn Saylor
Updated May 23, 2024
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Swiftwater rescue is a rescue technique tailored especially to whitewater river situations. Also known as whitewater rescue, this type of water transport is a division of technical rescue, a mode of lifesaving maneuvers outside the traditional responsibilities of law enforcement, firefighters, and paramedics. A specific set of rules govern swiftwater rescues and special equipment and maneuvers are utilized for the safe retrieval of a person or persons from a dangerous whitewater setting.

Traditional rescue techniques employ rope rescues, which use special ropes, anchoring mechanisms, and other equipment to carry out a successful rescue. Swiftwater rescue, on the other hand, uses stronger ropes and more hearty tools to execute the job, making use of specialized equipment and processes that utilize the concept of mechanical advantage. Those working in swiftwater rescue focus on repelling or redirecting the force of the water since, in most whitewater settings, the rush of water cannot be easily conquered by standard means of rescue.

When a swiftwater rescue team is called to the scene of a rescue, they first identify the elements by labeling the zones of operation; these zones are labeled "hot," "cold," and "warm." Each zone requires a specified set of responsibilities and tools. The hot zone encompasses the entire scene in the water, while the cold zone is defined as the area beyond 15 feet (4.6 meters) of the shoreline. The warm zone is the region within 15 feet (4.6 meters) of the shore. These designations help each individual rescuer know his or her duties and the equipment that will be required to carry out the job.

Next, the swiftwater rescue team will make use of a step by step checklist of possible rescue scenarios. When one tactic fails, the next item on the list is automatically employed. This keeps all rescuers on the same page as everyone knows what type of rescue is being attempted at any given time and the tools and manpower needed for that particular rescue.

The swiftwater rescuers must navigate the unpredictable rush and overpowering surge of water at all times. This can prove exceedingly tricky, and the requirements to become a rescuer are stringent. They may also be called upon to do what is called a live bait rescue, in which an unconscious person must be retrieved from the water. This entails towing the victim to safety and is considered a risky — but sometimes necessary — maneuver.

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