As I write this, rescue and recovery operations for Hurricane Harvey are ongoing. I had been writing about a recent trip to Africa to conduct training in the ICS but wanted to write about something that we are all focused on. Some early assessments of the damage include $70 billion to $190 billion dollars in economic losses and as of now 51 confirmed dead. The death toll will surely climb as the water recedes and recovery efforts continue.

In the midst of this damage, industry has also been hard hit. A plant that manufactures liquid organic peroxides caught fire and had several explosions. This was the result of the flooding that caused the plant to both lose power and its backup generators which in turn shut down the required refrigeration units.

This reminded me in some ways of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster; in which water from the tsunami caused the loss of the backup generators, which caused the loss of the reactors cooling system, which led to the disaster. Oil and natural gas production in the Gulf are both down by over 20 percent for various reasons; including port closures and refinery shut downs. This in addition to several significant hazardous materials spills.

In response to this ongoing disaster, numerous local, state and federal assets have been mobilized. These assets include several of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces. These task forces include NY-TF1 of which the FDNY is a part. While the task forces did not initially have a capability to deal with flooding of this scale this capability has been added over time.

To accomplish this equipment such as: PFDs, drysuits, fins, helmets, throw lines, boats, and motors were added to their equipment caches. In addition to adding the equipment, team members are sent to first the swiftwater rescue school and later to the swiftwater rescue boat operator training course.

NFPA 1006 Standard for Technical Rescue Personnel Professional Qualifications lists the skills required of personnel performing rescues in the various technical rescue disciplines such as: structural collapse rescue, rope rescue and confined space rescue. Highlighting the complexity of water rescue is the inclusion of seven categories of water rescue including: surface water rescue, swiftwater rescue, dive rescue, ice rescue, surf rescue, watercraft rescue, and floodwater rescue.

The FDNY has different field units that are trained and equipped in different combinations of these disciplines. For conducting the vast majority of operations required in response to Hurricane Harvey the most pertinent disciplines would include: surface water rescue, swift water rescue, watercraft rescue, and floodwater rescue.

Naturally all of these have a great deal of overlap; with the surface water discipline acting as the foundation for many of the others. As per the NFPA these disciplines are divided into level 1 (operations level) and level 2 (technician level). While these seven chapters of the standard are too involved to cover in depth in the space permitted I will list several of what I consider to be differences in the disciplines as well as important points.


One important item in the surface water rescue standard (as in all the others) is the choice and utilization of the appropriate PPE. However the most important item I took away from my first water rescue course was an appreciation of the hydraulic power of moving water. Films taken during attempted rescues that ended in fatalities for the victim or the rescuer proved attention getting.

However what really impressed the dangers upon me was my first turn in the water. After being taught the proper defensive position of my body in the rapids and how to read the water I was taken out to a dam which was then opened up. I climbed down a ladder tied to the dam and jumped in. By the time I got my head above the water, my body in proper position and reoriented myself to my surroundings I had to be at least 50 yards downstream.

I was later told that the water at the very bottom of the ladder was only 18” deep. This made me realize that if a rescuer slipped near the shore in calf level water it was possible for them to be gone before anyone could act. This was eye opening. For examples of how the power of hydraulics is not appreciated just turn on the television and watch all the stranded vehicles that were driven by people who believed they could cross flowing water.

A useful acronym that is often taught at this level is RETHROG. This tells you the order in which you should attempt a rescue. A rescuer should not jump into dangerous water if there is a quicker and safer way to make the rescue.

  • REach: Hand something to the victim. In some public pools they have life hooks (shepherd’s crooks), fire departments often use pike poles, but anything on hand can be used to hand to the victims and then to pull them to safety.
  • THrow: In water rescue the throw bag is traditionally used for this purpose but a coil of rope or a ring buoy are also options.
  • ROw: This is actually getting into a water craft and going to the victim. In the end this may be used in conjunction with reach, throw or go.
  • Go: This is actually getting into the water yourself and going to the victim. This puts a rescuer in the same possibly dangerous waters as the victim and they can also end up struggling with a panicked person who is in survival mode.

Other items in surface water rescue include basic swimming skills, self-rescue, and for the technician level the ability to complete a swimming surface water rescue.

In the swift water rescue standard rope rescue systems as they pertain to swift water are included. In addition swimming skills appropriate to the environment must be demonstrated as well as both the ability to conduct in water rescues and rescues from a craft. Swimming and conducting rescues in this environment requires the ability to read the water to identify various features such as eddies and strainers; which have the potential to either save or kill you respectively.

The floodwater rescue standard includes items such as the ability to identify contamination released due to the flooding and the ability to conduct a large area search.

In the watercraft rescue standard the ability to operate and navigate the type of watercraft that you will be required to utilize in the environment you will be operating in, and the ability to rescue an incapacitated victim are required.

At a minimum I would think that any facility that is located in an area that is prone to flooding could utilize at least a minimal level of water training to assist with securing their facility. An awareness of the power of water alone would be valuable and much more so if accompanied by instruction in PPE, and maybe some on the throw bag and conducting a land based rescue.

Another area of training to consider is in the preparation for such events. The FDNY has SOP’s that specify certain actions be taken at a specified number of hours from the events arrival. This could involve tasks such as shutting down certain systems, adjusting manpower, or assuring that backup systems are secure and ready for operation.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Texas and Louisiana and all the others affected by this disaster.

James Kiesling is the Captain of Squad 1 of the Fire Department, City of New York’s Special Operations Command. He holds as AOS in fire protection technology from Corning Community College, a BS in fire and emergency services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an MA in homeland security and defense from the Naval Postgraduate School.