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Plucking victims from fast-moving flood water

With the first in this series of articles being focused on techniques used by North American rescue agencies, AirMed&Rescue decided to take a closer look at how their counterparts in other regions of the world approach similar rescue scenarios

As previously discussed in AirMed&Rescue 91, the challenges for rescuers faced with extracting a victim – or multiple victims – from flood waters are myriad. In static swiftwater conditions, victims are trapped on stationary objects, a situation that requires a rescuer to enter the water to retrieve their victim. When victims are being swept away by floodwaters (dynamic swiftwater conditions), the risks to helicopter, crew and victims all increase substantially.

Rescues from swiftwater require specific training and experience in the strategies and tactics employed by the teams, and there are companies that provide just this sort of training course. One such company is Rescue3Europe, which offers a Swiftwater and Flood Operations for Search and Rescue Helicopter Personnel three-day course. Techniques taught to participants include the different ways in which rescues can be effected, the most efficient way to swim in swiftwater and shallow water, throwline rescue techniques, and strainer hazards. Strainers – defined by swiftwaterrescue.com as ‘anything that swiftwater can flow through, but that a swimmer, kayaker or boat cannot’ – can be man-made objects or naturally occurring; they can be invisible to the unsuspecting victim caught in a river and can be life threatening to both victim and rescuer.

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Each situation is unique

Preference is given to dynamic hoist which is most trained
Maurizio Lebet

Babcock Aviation operates mountain search and rescue and civil defence operations in Spain and Italy. Maurizio Lebet is Flight Operations Manager at Babcock Italy. “The hoist is extensively used during these operations. Primary techniques are dealt with in the company HEMS/mountain rescue and special operation SOPs,” he explains. “It largely depends on the specific location and surrounding obstacles environment. Techniques are normally briefed before departure once the mission task is more clear and detailed.

Preference is given to dynamic hoist which is most trained and provides less exposure to OEI (one engine inoperative) hovering OGE (out of ground effect). Whenever practicable, short haul is used to give the crew a more accurate spatial and situational awareness. Use of long-line in rescue operations is quite exceptional and should be adopted as a last technique to use in all circumstances where no other options can ensure the success of the rescue operation.”

The most commonly used technique by the Babcock team is rescue by winch, due to its ‘360-degree situational approach, both in the presence of obstacles, and due consideration to wind direction/intensity and speed of execution’, explains Lebet. He adds: “Performing hoist operations requires team work and co-ordination between pilot and HHO operator. Among all special operations, this is certainly the most complex, but also the only one that ensures the descent and the subsequent recovery of the rescuers, along with the injured, in almost any situations.” The only limitations are the cable length and any known operational limits of the helicopter. Compared to a hover rescue, hoist operation has the advantage of taking place with the rotors at a greater distance from obstacles or any other people present on the site of the accident. On the other hand, critical flight conditions are maintained for a longer period. Operations are slower and more difficult, requiring a high level of crew training – especially in the communications procedures between the various crew components.

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For the Italian Fire Service – Vigili del Fuoco – rescues from swiftwater are part of regular operations, and are carried out by ‘specially trained crews’, according to Mauro Malizia, former regional director with the Service. “For these types of rescues,” he told AirMed&Rescue, “there are no training courses with simulators, but we use specific training programmes.”

Patrick Wenger, a paramedic with Air Zermatt in Switzerland, who is also a rescue swimmer and diver, said that STARFlight in Texas, US, shares its training with the Swiss organisation. Swiftwater rescues, he said, are not terribly frequent in the Alps, so Air Zermatt does not have a designated protocol. Sadly, most of the swiftwater missions he has taken part in, therefore, are search and recovery missions. In most cases, he said, the helicopter is used with the hoist or short hail rope.

Bristow Helicopters delivers the UK search and rescue helicopter service on behalf of the HM Coastguard. Working in close partnership with Outdoor Safety Training (OST), a Rescue3Europe provider based in Glencoe, they have designed a bespoke, practical training course that captures the latest learnings, techniques and operating procedures in use across multi-agency rescue scenarios. Neil Ebberson, Project Manager, UK Search and Rescue at Bristow Helicopters, explained that the aim of the training is to give UK SAR winch operators and winchmen paramedics, the knowledge and experience to appropriately assess the hazards involved in swiftwater and flood winching operations. UK SAR crews are then able to conduct informed, dynamic risk assessments before deploying winchmen into swiftwater or flood environments, in order to minimise and mitigate operational risk. 

glencoe swiftwater rescue training
UK SAR training takes place at Kinlochleven, near Glencoe

The training is conducted at Kinlochleven, near Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands, to consider ground study and hydrology, operating procedures, and receive lectures on topics giving them a professional appreciation of issues such as survivor expectation, and movement through a river or flood, said Ebberson. The UK SAR teams train alongside HM Coastguard, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, fire and rescue services, cliff and mountain rescue teams.

“There is no substitute for practical training,” Ebberson noted. “Flood or fast flowing river scenarios are very challenging; situational awareness and effective decision making is instilled and reinforced through physical exposure to an event. The ability to conduct this exposure in a controlled environment is invaluable. With common language used by all agencies, our crews are able to understand the intentions of their colleagues in the shore-based rescue agencies. Ensuring that our UK SAR crews have the knowledge and ability to take informed decisions on the risks associated with every rescue situation is absolutely crucial.”