Aquatic Rescue Incident Size Up

By: Robert Shields

To the first arriving units at an aquatic rescue incident, the scene can be chaotic and confusing. Based on fire ground size-up mnemonics like COAL WAS WEALTH, responders can utilize the acronym WATER to effectively size up the aquatic rescue scene. Doing so can help provide safe and efficient management of the incident.

The size-up tool WATER breaks down the process into five components. Each is one you should take into consideration.

W: Weather and Water Conditions 

Knowing what the weather is and what it will be plays a key role in developing the rescue plan.

  • It increases overall scene safety.
  • It aids responders in determining the type of personal protective equipment needed for warmth in the water.
  • It will also take into consideration shore support personnel and the type of weather protection they will need.

In a flooding situation, responders can prepare for rise and fall of water if more rain is forecast. Responders can also detect an increase in water speed, and the potential for debris being dislodged that can strike rescuers or watercraft.

When assessing water conditions, consider factors such as movement (currents, tides), depth, and ice development. Depending on your team’s operating guideline, divers may not operate in a current over a certain speed. Changes in depth and bottom obstructions may cause a diver’s tether line to become snagged. This emphasizes the importance of pre-planning.

A: Access/Egress; Amount of victims 

What is the best way to reach the victim? What is the best way to get the victim out of danger, keeping in mind rescuer safety? In a large lake or pond, you may dispatch apparatus to one address. However, it may be easier to access the incident from another point.

Once the victim is rescued, determine the best and safest route to shore. When making a throw bag rescue in moving water, it may be easier and safer to pendulum victims downstream than to pull them back to point where the rescuer is standing.

After arriving on the scene, determine how many victims are involved.

  • Is it a single victim or multiple victims?
  • Are they at the surface or submerged?

Contact with the victim will allow for information gathering and assessment of the overall condition of the victim.

Witnesses at the scene are the key to obtaining this information. Knowing the number and location of the victims will aid in determining what resources you need, such as:

  • Ambulances
  • Additional rescue boats
  • Dive teams.

Determining how long the victim has been submerged will dictate the mode of operation, rescue or recovery.

T: Time of Day 

In daylight hours, scene lighting is not a concern. However, if the incident will be prolonged, consider scene and personnel lighting. Night operations require not only overall scene lighting but lighting for individual rescuers.

Another consideration is cold weather operations. Temperatures may drop once the sun sets. This will require responders tp prepare by adding layers. You must also ensure that a heated area is available for rescuers and shore support personnel. Shade and the ability to cool rescuers should be available during hot days.

E: Equipment and Resources Required 

The type of incident will help determine what additional equipment or resources you need. Any water incident should include an automatic call for a dive team. If needed, they are en route. If not, they can easily turn around.

Having divers en route will shorten the time needed for them to evaluate, dress, determine an appropriate search technique and then deploy. If a vehicle is in the water, send for a tow truck. This can be a time saver, especially if you cannot remove victims while the vehicle is submerged. Dedicate an EMS unit just for rescuers and personnel at the scene.

Some departments may have no water rescue capabilities. If so, know what surrounding departments have resources for water rescue. This will allow incident commanders to specifically call for that resource.

R: Rescue and Back-Up Plans 

After evaluating the first four components of the size up, formulate a rescue plan based on the information gathered. The plan needs to be dynamic because conditions at the scene can change rapidly, especially in water rescue incidents. This allows for multiple rescue options for a single incident. If plan A fails, what is plan B, and so on.

All rescue plans must stress safety. For example:

  • Use a downstream backup for moving water incidents.
  • Employ a safety diver and a 90% diver for dive operations.
  • Have a backup watercraft for boat operations.
  • Have a backup rescuer in an ice rescue suit ready to clip into the primary rescuer’s line and deploy.

These are examples of providing a safety back up. Just like the primary rescue plan, consider multiple back-up options due to the dynamic nature of water rescue incidents.

Once you develop the rescue and back up plans, advise all personnel. Knowing what will happen will allow them to not only assist in the rescue but observe the entire scene. They can be alert for safety issues and recommend adjusting the rescue plan accordingly.

WATER can be an effective aid for evaluating any aquatic rescue incident. You can not only use it for size up but also as a tool to develop pre-plans and standard operating guidelines. Preparing and training for aquatic rescue incidents is the key for a safe and successful outcome for all involved.

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