Posted by: njrigg | June 7, 2011

No Way Out! Flood and River Safety Information

No Way Out!
Flood and River Safety Information

By Nancy J. Rigg
Higgins & Langley Memorial and Education Fund

Earl Higgins lost his life in the flood-swollen Los Angeles River when he rescued a 10-year old boy who fell into the raging torrent.

Flooding – including rising river floods, flash floods, flood-swollen rivers and streams, and hurricane spawned floods – is the leading cause of weather-related death.  Sadly, flash flood and river drowning tragedies often involve more than one family member, as loved ones scramble to help those who have gotten into trouble in the water.  Strangers, who are Good Samaritans, can also pay the ultimate price for attempting to rescue someone who has been swept away.

Fast flowing water can be deceptively dangerous.  When flood runoff is compressed into a cement-lined channel, just six inches of swift water can knock you off your feet and prevent you from being able to stand up again.  You will more than likely be swept downstream, at the mercy of the current.

Vehicles, including heavy trucks, can get swept away in less than 2-feet of swift water.  Never drive through moving water. 70% of all rising flood and flash-flood related fatalities are in vehicles.

Reminder from the National Weather Service: Turn Around, Don't Drown.

Please remind everyone, especially children, to stay away from flood control channels, rivers, streams and other flood-swollen waterways when there is a lot of snow melt or heavy rain runoff, including on sunny days immediately following, or in between, big storms.

When it rains, flood control channels, rivers, streams, and arroyos can quickly fill up with roiling flood water, creating a potentially life-threatening danger to anyone who gets caught in the torrent, or is swept away.  Even if it’s sunny downstream, it may still be raining heavily upstream, sending flash floods downstream.  Be weather wise!

Low head dam rescue training - this is a very dangerous place to be, even for highly trained swiftwater rescue technicians.

In addition to cold water, which can cause hypothermia to develop quickly, making it very difficult for someone to self-rescue, there are other dangerous hazards in flood control channels and other open waterways, including debris, floodwater contamination from toxic chemicals and waste, slippery slopes along the edges and riverbanks, snakes and other dangerous animals in some areas, and deadly low-head dams.

Low-head dams look like fun water slides, but are called “drowning machines,” because the water can churn victims up and over and down until they drown.  Victims are tossed around like laundry in a washing machine.  It is extremely difficult to get yourself out of this unique hydraulic.  Rescue is required, often at great risk to rescue personnel.

Flood control channels, rivers and streams are not a good place to play.

If you fall into the water, there may be NO WAY OUT! Swiftwater rescue is likely the only lifesaving option.

The Cabin John River Rescue team, on call in the Potomac River, Maryland, USA.

Ideally, everyone will heed the warnings to avoid flood control channels, fast-flowing rivers and streams in flooding conditions.  But if someone gets swept away, basic safety knowledge is vital in terms of helping swiftwater rescuers make a rescue.

What Should You Do?

  • Never get into this situation! Stay away from flood control channels and fast moving floodwaters in streams and rivers.

What if You Fall In?

  • Remain calm.  Don’t waste energy yelling for help after you have been spotted by someone.
  • Get ready to be rescued.
  • Try to float on your back with your legs straight and your feet pointed downstream.
  • Use your legs to shove yourself away from obstructions.
  • Keep your head up so that you can see where you are going.
  • Watch for obstacles and debris!  If a tree or other stationary object is blocking the channel, forcing water over it, try to flip over on your stomach and approach the obstacle head-on, crawling over the top of it.  Most free-floating victims, who are being swept downstream in swift water, die when they get pinned against obstacles, or get trapped in submerged debris and vegetation.

Swiftwater rescue teams have special personal protective gear and equipment to use in rescue operations. Do not imagine you can do this unaided if someone you love falls into a roiling river.

What if You See Someone Fall into the Water?

  • Immediately call 9-1-1 (USA), or your local emergency response number! Tell the operator that someone who fell into the channel is being swept downstream and that swiftwater rescue teams need to respond.
  • Give accurate information about where you saw the victim go in, what the victim was wearing, etc.
  • Do not try to pull the victim out with your hands, a rope, or similar device.
  • Do not attach anything to yourself and toss it to a victim in the water.  You will be pulled in by the force of the current.
  • If possible, throw an unattached flotation device to the victim, such as a boogie board, Styrofoam ice chest, or basketball.
  • If a dog or other animal has been swept away, do not try to perform a rescue yourself.  Call swiftwater rescue teams immediately.  Animals can be clever and survive, but many people have lost their lives trying to rescue their pets.  Never allow your dog to run off leash near a fast-flowing river or stream.  For their safety and yours, please keep all animals away from flood control channels, rivers and streams!

Rivers can rise rapidly and unexpectedly. Be mindful of the weather, remain alert, and stay away, stay alive!

Swiftwater rescue is one of the most dangerous of all technical rescue operations performed by fire-rescue teams.  Nearly half of all deaths in swift water are would-be rescuers, including Good Samaritans. By endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of others.

Stay away! Stay alive!

Thanks to photographer Roy Sewall for the Cabin John River Rescue Team photos, and to Travis County EMS.  All rights reserved.


  1. Nice posting unfortunately many willl not read it or choose to ignore it. Greg

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