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Local Flooding: Are Your First Responders Properly Prepared?

By Randall Hanifen
Edge Contributor

The local flooding in Missouri and Kentucky reminds us that there are flooding problems in many communities, even in non-coastal areas. Inevitably, local fire and rescue services are put into action to respond to such disasters.

But the response by fire and rescue services differs, depending upon the location. Some first responders have competent, regional swift water teams. Others might own one boat and use personnel who are barely trained on the basics of swift water rescue.

Pictures often speak volumes. When you see first responders wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE) in a boat that is correctly balanced, that is a clear indicator of is a well-trained team.

However, I recently saw a picture of a rescuer in fire gear, nearly standing in a rescue boat. This image scares me, as it clearly shows a lack of proper training and is a tragedy waiting to happen.

Community Risk Assessments and Developing Plans for Local Flooding

While there have been many events that significantly overwhelmed local fire and rescue services and it’s hard to plan for every possible disaster, each community should have a community risk assessment. That assessment should include local areas that are likely to flood.

These community risk assessments should be a basis for developing a water rescue program. Multiple questions should be considered, such as:

  • If you do not have a yearly local flooding hazard, what does the 100-year flood plain look like?
  • Does a neighboring community have a greater risk of flooding?
  • Does the entire county have a risk of local floods?

Determining where the next floods will occur is a primary task of local fire and rescue services. Gathering this information can be accomplished with the aid of a state emergency management agency (EMA). This type of organization has mitigation and recovery plans, which are based on a community risk analysis.

With the exception of a few states, the EMA relies on local first responder services for the preparation and response phases of most disasters. Depending on the relationship between these organizations, much vital information can be missed, which adversely affects emergency preparation and response.

Water Rescue Training and Equipment For First Responders

Water rescue requires specialized training and equipment. Although some first responder agencies say they do not need motorized boats or swift water training, those people are often the ones hastily determining a plan when local flooding creates fast-moving streams in their communities and citizens need rescuing.  

Using a forward-thinking mindset and planning for all contingencies – even the unlikely ones – is the responsibility of local fire and rescue services. At a minimum, water rescue training should cover first responders’ personal safety, such as not wearing fire gear near water and using proper flotation devices.

Ideally, self-rescue techniques and water throw device training should be given to all fire and rescue personnel. This type of training will ensure that a rescue does not turn into a double fatality for both victims and their first responders.

More Grants Need to Be Available for Water Rescue Equipment and Training

I have been a part of special operations grants for nearly 20 years and in my experience, the hardest type of operation to fund is water rescue. Trying to buy boats and water rescue PPE is nearly impossible, because federal and state grant guidelines note that water rescue is only a local need.

Related link: Helping First Responders Overcome the Effects of Stress

If I want structural collapse and other specialized rescue equipment, I can get it because the federal government and state governments recognize the high cost of infrequently used equipment. If I want hazardous materials training, there are several state and federal grants.

But how many more floods will happen and how many more lives will be lost until this situation changes? Local flooding is an ongoing problem and requires a collaborative approach from national, state, and local organizations.

Emergency managers and fire and rescue services need to take action. They need to talk with legislators and encourage them to pass laws allowing local first responders to get the necessary funding for water rescue equipment and personnel training.

Firefighters and EMTs Need Water Rescue Training

In addition to more funding for water rescue equipment, water rescue techniques should be taught to firefighters and emergency medical technicians during their basic training. When local flooding occurs, the majority of first responders are left unprepared for rescuing victims and keeping themselves safe at the same time.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) has a series of 16 life safety initiatives that have been introduced to many firefighting organizations at the state level. Perhaps it’s time to add water rescue awareness and first responder self-rescue to that curriculum.

Related link: Ensuring the Right Response for Predictable Disasters

Local Flooding Will Continue to Increase

The frequency and location of local floods will likely increase, and local fire and rescue services will certainly be tasked with the frontline response. It is time we start to think of local flooding and water rescues as a collaborative problem and acquire the funding, training, and equipment that will save lives.

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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