This week, ROTW reinforces the need for constant command and control until the termination of an incident, regardless of the nature of the call.
Our swift-water rescue team was dispatched to a rollover accident in the river just off the interstate highway. Upon arrival, we found a single vehicle on its top in the river, with about eight inches of the car submerged. All of the occupants were out of the car and were trying to swim to shore. Our divers assisted the occupants in the water to shore.
Once the rescue of the occupants was completed, we transitioned to the recovery of the vehicle and began to upright the car to shore. We used the winch system from the tow truck on scene to accomplish this task. We cleared the area, and the tow-truck driver was told to initiate the process of uprighting the car. The grade was about 6%-8% from the street to the water.
The winch started pulling, and the vehicle was auguring it into the mud, resulting in a lot of tension on the winch. The tow truck was being pulled backward from the force of the cable on the car and was close to rolling down the hill, where two firefighters were posted as lookouts. We were able to catch this in time, and the driver shut the winch down. No one was injured.
View the report: Four-Point Stabilization Missed During Water Rescue
Risk assessment is a term we use commonly in the fire service, but sometimes we forget when that assessment stops. Understanding and addressing the threats that cross our path during a response, regardless of the progress of the incident, is vital to establish a best practice approach to response and mitigation.
Incidents like the one highlighted in this report reinforce the concept of situational awareness. Jumping into the river to assist people to safety is not a typical, everyday response. Adrenaline levels surge when first on the scene but quickly deescalate once we have taken the life-safety portion of victims out of the equation.
Post-control tactics like uprighting a car are still at the direction of the incident commander. Any plans to bring a vehicle to its wheels, or in this case, out of the river, need to be cleared by command before execution. Further, communicating the plan to all stakeholders on the scene will raise everyone's awareness and can identify unforeseen hazards.
In this report, a slow and smooth approach would have been a better practice, or perhaps using a bigger tow truck that could have handled the drag of the water and river bottom more efficiently.
- What is your policy or guideline for recovering a vehicle from a body of water?
- Does your department rely on an external towing company for vehicle recovery, or do you have apparatus dedicated for operations of this nature?
- Who has command of the incident when it’s on a city street? When it’s on a highway or interstate?
- Does your department train with your local towing companies?
Ongoing risk assessment is crucial to firefighter safety. Maintaining command and control of the incident even when the risk to life safety is minimal is perpetual and in motion until we officially terminate or pass the command to another agency.
From the standpoint of stabilization, it is unclear if that would have helped or further hindered this incident. Water, much like fire, is unforgiving and does not discriminate. The uncontrollable hazards that lie on the bottom of any water hazard can quickly overwhelm machinery and staffing. In this report, a bigger tow truck may have been the better choice. It’s OK to call for another resource, even if it means we will be on the scene a bit longer.