2011 Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards

in Swiftwater Rescue Announced

For Immediate Release

ASHEVILLE, NC. April 3, 2011—The Higgins & Langley Memorial and Education Fund Awards Committee is proud to announce the 2011 Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards in Swiftwater Rescue, which recognize excellence in the field of flood and swiftwater rescue.

The awards will be presented on Friday, June 3, 2011, at 7:30 PM, at the annual National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) conference, at John Ascuaga’s Nugget Hotel, 1100 Nugget Avenue, Sparks, NV, 89431.  Telephone: 1-800-328-0876 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            1-800-328-0876      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.


2011 Higgins & Langley Awards

Outstanding Achievement Award

Ocoee River Rescue

On October 3, 2010, Dr. Michael McCormick seriously injured his cervical spinal cord in a whitewater kayaking incident on the Ocoee River in Tennessee after being flipped in a hole at the top of Slice and Dice rapid. Paralyzed and unable to move, he was rescued by four kayakers he had met only 45 minutes before—Michael Howard, Kevin Sipe, Neal Carmack, and Bryant Haley. After realizing their new companion was in trouble, the kayakers chased him down though two sets of Class II-III rapids and were able to catch and roll him upright just before entering a larger set of rapids. At that point one of the rescuers (trained as a military medic) immobilized his neck while another paddled ahead to phone medical support. The rest got him into an eddy and with the help of a passing raft company evacuated him to the road side, where he was met by an ambulance and subsequently transported on a helicopter.

Program Development Awards

Breeding Volunteer Fire Department Technical Rescue Team, Columbia, KY

After an incident in 2009 in which a would-be citizen rescuer drowned, the Breeding Fire Department committed to the development of a technical rescue team. Since December of 2009, under the leadership of Captain Chris Taylor and Lieutenant Brandon Harvey, rescuers have put in nearly 1000 man hours of training, consisting of rope rescue and swiftwater technician at the NFPA 1670 and 1006 level. The department has acquired a 26′ enclosed trailer, technical rope rescue gear, 2 self-bailing rafts, a Mercury IRB, 10 sets of technician level PPE and 10 sets of operations PPE—altogether nearly an $80,000 investment in technical rescue gear. The team consists of 5 swiftwater rescue technicians and 7 rope rescue technicians, and trains monthly with Taylor and Green Counties.

Killeen Rescue Team, Killeen Fire Department, Killeen, TX

After dealing with prior flooding incidents in Central Texas Lieutenant Beau Arnold and Fire Rescue Officer/Paramedics Justin Todd and Darren Morphis of the Killeen Fire Dept. developed a flood rescue program meant to deliver safe, effective response for multiple rescues and evacuations. The program was put to the test on September 7, 2010 during a flood where water conditions varied from flooded creeks with moderate debris loads rated at Class III to Class IV-V water in creeks and streets contaminated with raw sewage and major debris including trees, household materials and fire ants. Over an 18-hour period the Killeen Fire swiftwater rescue team performed 83 flood rescues and evacuations, including one individual trapped in a tree in rising floodwaters and four dogs rescued by boat.

Swiftwater Rescue Team Awards

Travis County STAR Flight, Austin, TX

During the flooding following Tropical Storm Hermine in early September, 2010, Travis County STAR Flight deployed its three hoist-equipped EC-145 Public Safety Helicopters after receiving over 20 requests for search and rescue assistance throughout Central Texas. Thirteen individuals were rescued, including a man clinging to the roof of his submerged vehicle in extremely swift-moving water, three ground-based swift water boat team members whose rescue boat became stranded amongst trees in swift water, a family of four stranded on the second-story of their home, a man stranded on high ground surrounded by flood water, and four individuals trapped in their homes. All were hoisted to the aircraft with an extraction collar by a Helicopter Rescue Specialist (HRS), over half during the hours of darkness using night vision goggles.

Travis County STAR Flight Swiftwater Rescue Team: Glenn Anderson, Lynn Burttschell, Willy Culberson, Bill Derrick, Kristin McLain, Casey Ping, Chuck Spangler, Mike J. Summers, Kenneth M. Thompson

San Diego Fire-Rescue Lifeguard Swiftwater Rescue Team, San Diego, CA

On December 21, 2010, the Lifeguard Communications Center received a report from the United States Border Patrol of people trapped by water in the Tijuana River Valley. Lifeguard Swiftwater Rescue Team units responded and rescued three individuals from the Tijuana River. Much of the city was flooded in the most severe event since 1980, the major impact falling on Mission Valley, through which the San Diego River runs. Over the next forty hours, all across the city, the Lifeguard Swiftwater Rescue team rescued a total of seventy-three people and 7 dogs, responded to approximately twenty-three other calls, as well as assisting with the evacuations of some sixty people forced from their homes. Incidents included rescues of numerous persons who became trapped in their vehicles after attempting to cross the river. At the Premier Inn in Mission Valley the Lifeguard Swiftwater Rescue Team, with support from Fire Operations, constructed a tension diagonal rescue system to safely and efficiently evacuate all fifty-one occupants.

San Diego Lifeguard Swiftwater Rescue Team: John Everhart, Robert Albers, Michael Cranston, Troy Keach, John Sandmeyer, Jon Vipond, John Bahl, Jim Birdsell, Marc Brown, David Calder, Timothy Cicchetto, Charles Davey, Robert Eichelberger, Steven Malcolm, Daryl McDonald, Leslie Mendez, Ric Stell

Special Commendation Award

Matthew S. Peek, Water Entry Team (WET) Assistant Director, Reno Fire Department, Reno NV

On Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 Assistant Water Entry Team Director Matt Peek was instructing WET members on the Truckee River near Mayberry Park in Reno. Because of high water conditions Peek had had the team’s training venue changed to the Truckee that day, making it available for rescues if needed. While the class was in session two tubers, neither wearing PFDs, struck a partially submerged log jutting out from the right bank of the river. Both were flipped out of their tubes and one female became entrapped on the log, barely able to keep her head above water. Peek exited his kayak and reached the victim, keeping her head above water until her leg was freed. Shortly afterward a second group of five tubers came down the river and struck the same log. All went into the water, and a teenage boy with the party became entrapped on the same log. He was also rescued by Peek, who then recommended that the log be immediately removed. This was done shortly afterward with a rescue truck’s winch.


Higgins & Langley Memorial Award


The Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards were established in 1993 by the National Association for Search and Rescue Swiftwater Rescue Committee in honor of Earl Higgins, a writer and filmmaker, who lost his life in 1980 while rescuing a child who was swept down the Los Angeles River, and Los Angeles County Firefighter Paramedic Jeffrey Langley, a pioneer in swiftwater rescue who lost his life in a helicopter incident in 1993.

The Awards have increased awareness about the need for specialized swiftwater and flood rescue training and preparedness. Today, worldwide training certifications have increased and agencies have been inspired to develop viable water rescue programs to protect the public and rescuers alike.

Thanks to our Sponsors

The Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards are sponsored by CFS Press, CMC Rescue, Inc., ESPRIT Whitewater, Fire and Rescue Concepts, LLC, K38 Water Safety, Liquid Militia, Rescue Canada, Rescue 3 International/Rescue Source, Rescue ONE Connector Boats, Sierra Rescue/Rescue 3 West, Whitewater Rescue Institute, and SkyHook Rescue Systems, Inc.  Additional support for the awards is provided by the Rudi Schulte Family Foundation, the National Association for Search and Rescue, Jon Stephen and Karen Langley Stephen, and the family of John B. and Shirley A. Rigg, as well as contributions from other generous individuals.

For more information: www.higginsandlangley.org

or contact Slim Ray             828-505-2917 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            828-505-2917      end_of_the_skype_highlighting       (slimray@gmail.com)



This article first appeared in Advanced Rescue Technology Magazine in February 2006.  It focuses on the swiftwater rescue mission during Hurricane Katrina – a story that was never well represented in the mainstream media.

In honor of the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, this article is being reprinted in order to salute the dedication and professionalism of the swiftwater and flood rescue teams and other water rescue resources that served during Katrina, including the United States Coast Guard.

Although far too many people lost their lives in Katrina, many more were rescued, and this chapter of swiftwater and flood rescue history deserves to be remembered.

Nancy J. Rigg

August 28, 2010


Is Anyone Listening?

By Nancy J. Rigg

"Welcome to New Orleans" (photo courtesy CA OES)

A typical Atlantic hurricane season features an average of ten named storms, according to the National Hurricane Center, with six of them reaching hurricane strength and two becoming major hurricanes.  In 2004 records were shattered when Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne devastated vast areas in Florida, moved up the East Coast through the Carolinas, and along the Gulf Coast to Alabama, killing more than 100 people.  For the 2004 hurricane season to be overshadowed seems almost unreal, but as National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator, retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. notes, the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season became “the most devastating hurricane season the country has experienced in modern times.”

2005 was a year of many “firsts,” including the first hurricane season with so many named storms that meteorologists had to dig into the Greek alphabet, with Tropical Storm Zeta becoming the 27th named storm on December 30th, a full month after the traditional end of hurricane season.  It was the first season featuring three Category 5 hurricanes and the first season with four major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher making landfall.

2005 was also the first hurricane season that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, deployed rapid response swiftwater/flood rescue teams from the State of California to aid in water rescue operations when 80% of the City of New Orleans flooded up to 20-feet deep, leaving thousands of victims floating, clinging to trees, clambering into attics as their homes filled to the eaves, breaking through to their rooftops waiting for help, or drowning while waiting for help that did not come in time.

Although the U.S. Coast Guard and other air rescue assets began making air rescues in New Orleans as soon as it was prudent to do so, as many rescue assets as were available, more were needed.

Hurricane Katrina (photo courtesy NOAA)

Emergency Management Nightmare

Scientists continue to debate whether Katrina was a Category 4 or 3 when it made landfall in Louisiana, but prior to hitting the Gulf Coast, Katrina generated huge ocean swells as a massive Category 5 storm, launching 20-30 foot tidal surge floods that combined with 8-10 inches of rain and walloping winds to obliterate countless communities.  In the aftermath of Katrina, emergency managers, fire-rescue personnel and law enforcement officers found themselves faced with the largest disaster impact zone in modern history.  90,000 square miles of coastland along the Gulf of Mexico, covering an area the size of Great Britain, suffered major infrastructure damage, if not total devastation.

New Orleans under water (photo courtesy OES)

Initially it appeared that New Orleans had survived relatively unscathed after Katrina made landfall on the morning of Monday, August 29th.  According to William Lokey, Chief, Operations Branch, Response Division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who served as Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) during Katrina, on Tuesday, August 30th, “We began getting anecdotal information that the levee had broken, then no, it had just overtopped with some local flooding and a lot of people went to bed Monday night thinking we’d dodged the ‘big one.’”

The full magnitude of flooding in New Orleans did not become clear until Wednesday, August 31st.  “Our initial report was that there were some problems, but the Coast Guard had it handled,” Lokey says.  “We didn’t have a full appreciation of how much New Orleans was flooding and how bad it was until Tuesday.  No phone lines worked, no radio towers were up, nobody could communicate with anybody.  The infrastructure was gone.”

FEMA Makes a Bold Decision

For several years there has been an effort to improve the means of coordinating mutual aid resources during major emergencies when local, county/parish and state resources can quickly become overwhelmed.  Before Katrina made landfall FEMA pre-staged urban search and rescue (US&R) teams from Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio and Indiana in Louisiana and Mississippi, with additional US&R Task Force Teams from Florida, Virginia, and Maryland, as well as medical, military and logistical assets on alert.

In addition to federal assets, the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) facilitates the sharing of mutual aid resources across state lines in times of disaster or emergency.  Over the past few years water rescue assets have been deployed through NEMA’s Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), but in the absence of national swiftwater/flood rescue standards and team typing, past calls for water rescue resources have turned major flood responses into a “you-all come help” scramble, creating serious command and control problems in the flood zone.

OES Swiftwater Rescue - IRBs (photo courtesy of OES)

In an attempt to help ensure that qualified swiftwater/flood rescue assets could be called up through EMAC if flooding were to become an issue, before Katrina made landfall, Lokey provided state officials in Louisiana with information about respected and experienced swiftwater/flood rescue teams, including assets from North Carolina, Maryland, Texas, and California. Unfortunately at the time, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) was not a signatory through EMAC.  Lokey quickly secured permission to deploy California swiftwater/flood rescue teams as federal assets.  He justified this bold action by noting that “people are not dying in collapsed structures or for lack of ‘safe rooms’ in tornadoes.  People are dying in moving water that is generated by hurricanes.”

“It was unprecedented to have eight of our swiftwater/flood rescue teams deployed through FEMA,” Deputy Chief Charles Hurley of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) Fire and Rescue Branch, Special Operations Division notes.  “FEMA does not recognize water rescue as a component of their US&R program at the federal level.  Because of major floods in 1995 and 1997, the State of California recognized that flood and swiftwater rescue is an integral US&R component.  Our US&R teams are, first and foremost, a local asset.  Second, here in California they are also state assets.  And third, they are federal assets.  Because floods are one of the most common disasters that we respond to, as state assets we made the decision to affiliate our water rescue teams with the US&R Task Forces.  California now has ten Type 1 flood and swiftwater rescue teams.”

Launching into the flood zone (photo courtesy of OES)

Hurley explains that only a few states have developed a genuine capability to manage and quickly deploy swiftwater/flood rescue teams statewide, including California, Texas, and North Carolina.  Water rescue experts continue to make a push within the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System to address this issue at the federal level.  “It’s something that the US&R teams have been pushing FEMA on for years,” Hurley says.  “If you review responses historically,” he adds, “the bread and butter operations for FEMA and the US&R program have been hurricanes, not incidents like the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, or earthquakes.”

Swiftwater rescue teams from Northern California – Sacramento City Fire Department (CA-TF7), Oakland Fire Department (CA-TF4), and Menlo Park Fire Department (CA-TF3) –and Southern California – Los Angeles City Fire Department (CA-TF1), Los Angeles County Fire Department (CA-TF2), Orange County Fire Authority (CA-TF5), Riverside City Fire Department (CA-TF6), and the San Diego City Fire Department including the Lifeguard Division (CA-TF8) – were alerted about a possible deployment before Katrina made landfall, mustered on August 30th and arrived in New Orleans on the 31st. “By 11:00 that morning the three swiftwater/flood rescue teams from Northern California began deploying our boats,” Hurley says.  “By 5:30 PM the balance of the teams had arrived and relieved the first three teams.  From about 11:00 AM until 10:00 PM, the California teams rescued about 500 people.”

In the flood zone (photo courtesy of OES)

Incident Management Muddle

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the federal government reviewed existing emergency response plans, found them less than adequate and implemented the National Response Plan (NRP) through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  According to DHS documents issued in 2004, “The purpose of the NRP is to establish a comprehensive, national, all-hazards approach to domestic incident management across a spectrum of activities including prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.”  It is important to note, especially in light of all the finger pointing and condemnation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that “the NRP is built on the template of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which provides a consistent doctrinal framework for incident management at all jurisdictional levels, regardless of the cause, size, or complexity of the incident.”

OES commanders (photo courtesy OES)

Multi-agency incident command and control begins at the local level and expands as needed.  Theoretically, when every agency involved in a response adheres to standard incident command system (ICS) protocols, “the Plan ensures the seamless integration of the federal government when an incident exceeds local or state capabilities.”  Minimum NIMS compliance nationally was supposed to have been established no later than September 30, 2005, with agencies nationwide meeting full compliance in 2006.

It is difficult to measure the skill levels that pre-existed Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in Louisiana, but numerous reports from the field indicate less than fluid ICS or NIMS capability at local, parish, and state levels.  Without the solid foundation that NIMS provides, major disasters like Katrina can quickly deviate from the envisioned “seamless response” noted in the NRP to a flimsy house of cards that collapses from the bottom up.

“It is critical to have a common operating system,” says Lt. James “JP” Troy, swiftwater rescue team manager for Oakland’s US&R Task Force (CA-TF4).  “With all the incidents we respond to on a regular basis in California, from wildland fires to floods to other large events, we’re adept at using ICS.  We fall right into the system and know how it works.  But when you’re coming into other areas of the country like Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, they’re not quite as adept.  Being in the middle of a major disaster is not the time to be teaching the system.”

According to William Lokey, “One of the lessons learned over and over again is that people need to be up to speed with ICS.  Just taking ICS 100, 200, or 300 on the FEMA web page doesn’t cut it.”  Efforts were made to establish a unified command center functioning within standard incident command, but Lokey admits, “It was so big, so confused, and so Raggedy Andy, it wasn’t very good.”

Swiftwater Rescue teams being inserted into the flood zone (photo courtesy OES)

Menlo Park Fire District Division Chief Special Operations Harold Schapelhouman, who serves as CA-TF3 Program Manager and oversees the agency’s water rescue resources, notes that incident management problems reach beyond a simple understanding of ICS and NIMS.  “Nationally,” Schapelhouman explains, “we have a lot of swiftwater rescue personnel trained at the operations level, but what we don’t have is enough people who understand water rescue at the management level.  This is a hole in the system.  Although the management capability is evolving, unfortunately, many people who understand search and rescue, including US&R, simply don’t understand the series of moves that you need to make in a water rescue environment and how to prioritize where you need to put your assets.  Swiftwater and flood rescue teams are ‘special forces’ units, with a clearly defined focus and capability.  They could have been used more effectively.”

Schapelhouman recalls having the swiftwater teams lodged in a convoy over four miles long leading into the flood zone.  “Management didn’t understand the light, fast, mobile capability of the swiftwater teams,” he says.  “We were stuck behind the Type 1 US&R teams that couldn’t get their busses across the water, which was a big mess.  It was like putting Special Forces behind the Army.  That’s not what you want to do.  You put those guys out front and let them do what they do best.”

Control of the Flood Zone

OES swiftwater rescue teams heading to the flood zone (photo courtesy OES)

With live television news covering the unfolding misery in New Orleans, an armada of self-deployed volunteers joined with various public safety agencies to ferry willing survivors and animals out of the flood zone.  Unfortunately, boats were also commandeered for less noble purposes by looters and others taking advantage of the situation.  Charles Hurley notes that command and control on the water was a challenge.  “There were myriad assets with boats from the Coast Guard to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, with folks who were experienced boat operators, to volunteers helping people out,” Hurley says.  “We had citizens showing up with everything from $30-50,000 bass boats to dilapidated, beat up old aluminum boats, with no life vests, no personal protective equipment or anything.  They just wanted to drop their boats into the water and go get people.  I applaud the desire to help, but this kind of freelancing makes coordinated search and rescue efforts very chaotic and potentially dangerous.”

Hurley recalls one airboat operator with a penchant for “pulverizing” rescue boat crews with putrid floodwater.  “This ‘volunteer’ would wait until our rescue boats got behind him and then he would throttle up that airboat and send nasty water spewing over our boat crews,” Hurley says.  The volunteer claimed not to be doing this on purpose, but “we watched him wait until the organized boat crews got behind him, throttle up and dust them,” Hurley adds.  The man was arrested by local sheriff’s deputies and removed from the water.

Bringing a young survivor ashore (photo courtesy of OES)

Command and control problems, compounded by major communications problems, affected all levels of the response.  “FEMA is there to support and help with response and recovery efforts,” Hurley says, “but they are not supposed to be the primary emergency response component.”  In the absence of a functioning command and communications structure, members of a FEMA Incident Support Team (IST) stepped up to the plate and everyone worked together to resolve issues in the field.

Security and Safety

Lt. John Greenhalgh serves with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, Lifeguard Division, and manages CA-TF8’s swiftwater rescue team.  With eleven river rescue lifeguards, a task force leader from the fire department, a communications specialist-paramedic, and a logistics specialist, the 14-member swiftwater rescue team offers a “strong mix” of aquatic and fire-rescue personnel.  Greenhalgh recalls driving towards the flood zone on their first day of operations past the over-crowed Super Dome.  “People were yelling at us saying they needed help,” he says, “but we knew that the people we were being sent out to help needed it even more than they did.  We saw that they had water and MREs.  I’m sure they were uncomfortable, but we were going out to help people who were trapped inside flooded houses.”

On the second day of operations, with anger and lawlessness mounting, security concerns brought rescue missions to a halt.  “When they didn’t let us go out, it was hard, because rescuers want to get out there and get the job done,” Greenhalgh says.

CA-TF!, Los Angeles Fire swiftwater rescue team (photo courtesy of OES)

The majority of California swiftwater rescue personnel come from agencies that serve in large urban areas with varying crime rates.  “At some point you’ve got to take back the dirt,” Harold Schapelhouman says, “but how do you do this in a flood zone?”  Schapelhouman stresses the importance of working closely with local fire-rescue and law enforcement personnel.  “Even if it’s a jurisdiction that doesn’t have water rescue capability and is impacted to the point where their command, control, and operations are completely devastated, like New Orleans was, you still need local personnel to provide a clear reference for the area.”  Schapelhpouman commends a small group of New Orleans firefighters who worked closely with the swiftwater rescue teams throughout the deployment.

Lessons Learned… Again

Tracking Numbers: Currently there is no federal system to accurately track disaster death statistics in a meaningful way, where the presence or lack of technical rescue teams is evaluated.  Nor is there a means to accurately track the number of people who benefit from technical rescue expertise, like swiftwater/flood rescue, where a high skill level is required.

Photo courtesy of OES

The number of rescues being touted varies from 33,000 plus by the Coast Guard alone to joint-agency rescues and evacuations in the thousands.  Without faulting any agency’s desire to shine, Harold Schapelhouman is quick to point out, “It’s important to note that this effort involved many rescue teams and resources working together.  It wasn’t a single agency that pulled this off.  It was a combination of everybody in a variety of disciplines working together.”

Rescue (photo courtesy of OES)

“The US&R and swiftwater rescue teams have been credited with 6,582 saves,” William Lokey says.  “FEMA personnel were on land, in fish and wildlife boats, working with the Coast Guard, working with military helicopters, we had a lot of people down there.”

Media Coverage: Selective media coverage put the federal government in a bad light, without telling the full story.  Coverage of the swiftwater rescue team deployment was spotty at best.  “I’m a little disappointed that the story has not been fully reported,” Lokey muses.  “We pre-staged more assets than ever.  We launched quicker than ever.  We saved more lives than ever.”  By law FEMA is supposed to supplement local response capability, not supplant it.  Unfortunately, the lingering impression in the aftermath of this catastrophic storm is, “Where was FEMA?” Lokey says.

Beyond the public relations issue a serious public safety debate about future operations is unfolding.  “FEMA is being criticized for everything that went wrong, including things outside of their responsibility,” Harold Schapelhouman says,” but nobody’s seeing what went right, including the deployment of swiftwater/flood teams.  The fear for me, as a first responder, is when you have the President of the United States being told that the military can do a ‘better job’ than FEMA, what you’re saying is that master mutual aid, which certainly is not where it needs to be, but continues to improve, can be replaced with something different.  FEMA needs to become more all-risk, more inclusive, and better funded.  We hope that FEMA remains the federal vehicle to coordinate responses and that swiftwater/flood rescue is finally integrated into the system.”

Rescued in New Orleans (photo courtesy of OES)

*  *  *

Photos courtesy of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES

Robert A. Eplett, photographer.

An unknown number of dogs and domestic pets drowned or were abandoned as a result of Hurricane Katrina. We must also remember them and learn...

Posted by: njrigg | June 2, 2010

Hurricane Season Begins

Hurricane Season Begins

The Swiftwater Rescue News would like to remind all public safety agencies in hurricane prone areas that they need to be prepared to perform a variety of water rescues and help with evacuations – not just along the coast, dealing with storm surge issues, but also in inland flood zones, when rivers rise and flash flooding occurs.

Agencies need to prepare now to manage swiftwater and flood rescue operations using proper technical swiftwater and flood rescue equipment and protocols.

All agencies need to provide industry standard water rescue PPE (protective gear) to personnel to keep everyone safe and give potential victims a fighting chance to be rescued.

All government workers who are working in and around floodwater should be issued a properly fitted, US Coast Guard approved PFD (personal flotation device, life jacket) and required to wear it.

Los Angeles County, CA) Urban Search and Rescue Teams from the Los Angeles County Fire Department practice swiftwater rescue techniques during a training drill. Photo by: Jason Pack/FEMA News Photo

The predeployment of swiftwater rescue teams in advance of oncoming storms, especially in areas that may produce heavy inland flooding, is strongly recommended.

Nancy J. Rigg

Editor, Swiftwater Rescue News

Hurricane Season Begins

Bolivar Peninsula, TX, December 6, 2008 -- Specially trained cadaver locating dog "Cooper" (upper left) works a pile of debris while his trainer and flanker look on. Months after Hurricane Ike left the area a disaster, final sweeps are being made to determine that no human remains are still in the piles; clearing the way for cleanup crews to move in and start removing the mess. FEMA supports this mission, along with many others, as a community recovers after a disaster. Mike Moore/FEMA

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, Tuesday June 1, marks the official start of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season that runs through the end of November.  Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spent the day urging American families, businesses and communities to take every possible precaution to prepare for hurricanes and other disasters.  FEMA continues to work with its state, local and federal partners to increase preparedness and coordinate response and recovery in the case of a hurricane or disaster, and uses the start of hurricane season to remind Americans to assess their personal readiness to respond to emergencies.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate spent the day at the FEMA Region IV offices in Atlanta, Ga., visiting with leadership and staff as they continue to plan and prepare for hurricanes and other emergencies that threaten the southeast.  FEMA Region IV encompasses Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky.

June 1 should serve as an important reminder about the need for individuals to be prepared for any emergency,” said Administrator Fugate. “This may be the start of the hurricane season, but emergencies can happen anytime, anywhere, and everyone needs to be prepared – not just those folks in hurricane prone states.”

Earlier today, FEMA Deputy Administrator Rich Serino marked the beginning of the season by giving the keynote address at the Delaware 2010 All-Hazards Preparedness Conference.  Serino stressed the importance of working together at the local, state and federal levels to prepare for all hazards, and the important role that individual preparedness plays in ensuring a strong response to hurricanes and other emergencies.

Everyone, including those living outside of hurricane-risk areas, should check their personal preparations and emergency kits, note any alerts

New Orleans, LA, September 8, 2005 -- An aerial view of a gas leak located next to a house impacted by Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans is being evacuated as a result of floods from hurricane Katrina. Thousand of people have been rescued from the flood waters by Urban Search and Rescue teams from around the country. Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

or messages from local emergency officials, and rehearse emergency evacuation routes.  Emergency kit supplies should last at least 72 hours.

Important items to have ready in case of an emergency include a battery-powered radio, flashlight, extra batteries, medicine, non-perishable food, hand-operated can opener, utility knife and first aid supplies. All important documents should be copied and stored in a waterproof bag.  These may include medical records, contracts, property deeds, leases, banking records, insurance records and birth certificates.

When preparing for hurricane season and potential emergencies, the needs of all members of a household should be considered.  If a household includes a person with a disability, special steps to assist them may be necessary and should be incorporated into all emergency planning.

Pets also require special handling.  They may become agitated during the onset of a storm, so a pet carrier is a must for safe travel.  Pet owners should research pet boarding facilities now within a certain radius of where they may evacuate, since animals may not be welcome in all shelters or hotels.

The beginning of hurricane season is also the time to consider flood insurance coverage – most homeowners insurance does not cover flood damage.  Not only are homes and businesses in hurricane-prone states at risk for flooding, but inland flooding is common in nearby states.  To assess flood risk for a home or find a local agent selling national flood insurance, visit www.floodsmart.gov or call toll-free at 1-888-379-9531.

Galveston Island, TX, September 17, 2088 -- A volunteer for the Humane Society tends to a dog displaced by Hurricane Ike in a shelter set up to help animals displaced by the hurricane. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

As hurricane season gets underway, FEMA continues to support the coordinated federal response to the BP oil spill.  Planning for the 2010 hurricane season has involved consideration of the BP oil spill and its potential effects on all hurricane response and recovery scenarios.

To see a video message from Administrator Fugate about this hurricane season, visit www.fema.gov/medialibrary/media_records/2568.

For more preparedness information, please visit www.fema.gov and www.Ready.gov.

Follow FEMA online at www.twitter.com/femainfocus, www.facebook.com/fema, and www.youtube.com/fema.  Also, follow Administrator Fugate’s activities at www.twitter.com/craigatfema.  The social media links provided are for reference only.  FEMA does not endorse any non-government Web sites, companies or applications.

FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.

Posted by: njrigg | May 16, 2010

Don’t Throw Away Your Tax Exempt Status

Don’t Throw Away Your Tax Exempt Status

ALERT: May 17, 2010, is the deadline for nonprofits that have not filed an annual return in the past three years (even those with gross receipts normally under $25,000) to file or face automatic revocation of their tax-exempt status.


Organizations that lose their tax-exemptions may not receive tax-deductible contributions and will have to file all over again for recognition as tax-exempt with the IRS.

Find out whether your nonprofit is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status because it hasn’t filed annual returns with the IRS.

Check the list!


Read this fact sheet from the IRS for more information about filing annual returns and please spread the word.


The smallest nonprofits (those with gross receipts normally under $25,000) only need to fill out Form 990-N, also known as the e-Postcard.

The IRS has detailed information on who needs to file, as well as Frequently Asked Questions and fact sheets.

Links to More Information from the IRS:

More info: http://www.irs.gov/charities/article/0,,id=217087,00.html

Link to FAQ on the issue: http://www.irs.gov/charities/article/0,,id=221600,00.html

The 8 questions: http://www.irs.gov/charities/article/0,,id=218162,00.html

Posted by: njrigg | April 14, 2010

TEEX US&R launches new iPhone Swiftwater Calculator

TEEX iPhone Swiftwater Calculator

In a swiftwater rescue scenario, it is useful to determine how far a person in the water has travelled downstream so that the search area may be narrowed and more effectively conducted. Although the math for determining this distance is relatively straightforward, it requires precious time that could be better used elsewhere. Mistakes may also be made in a high-stress situation, which may also cost time.

Texas Engineering Extension Service – TEEX US&R’s new Swiftwater Calculator takes all the guesswork out of determining water speed and distance traveled. By using the simple and friendly controls, a user can determine the water speed and the estimated distance traveled in just 4 tabs of the finger. This App is intended to be used by those emergency responders who have had appropriate swiftwater training. However, this App also works for anyone trying to find any item that may have entered the water and wants to know where they should start looking. Think of un-tied boats, ice chests, tubes, etc.

According to Brian Smith, TEEX Public Information Officer, Urban Search and Rescue Division, “As the state agency responsible for coordinating swiftwater rescue for the state of Texas, we have recently developed an application that responders can use to calculate the speed of swiftwater and then determine the maximum distance a person in the water could have traveled downstream. Our hope is to make this application a valuable tool to assist responders on scene and save valuable time when trying to calculate water speed and distance traveled.”

NOTE: This application is not a substitute for Swiftwater & Flood Rescue Training. Users of this application should be appropriately trained Emergency Responders, and should alert local responders or emergency response officials of any emergency incident. The information this Application provides is only an estimate based on the inputs of the user, and the publisher of this Application is not liable for any decisions or actions based upon the data contained herein.

The link to the application is http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/swiftwater-calculator/id365728824?mt=8

TURN AROUND, DON’T DROWN Swiftwater Calculator Support

  • $0.99
  • Category: Utilities
  • Released: Apr 13, 2010
  • Version: 1.0.1
  • 0.2 MB
  • Language: English
  • Seller: Texas Engineering Extension Service
  • © 2010 Texas Engineering Extension Service – USAR

Requirements: Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iPhone OS 3.1 or later.

2010 Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards in Swiftwater Rescue Announced

ASHEVILLE, NC. April 3, 2010—The Higgins & Langley Memorial and Education Fund is proud to announce the 2010 Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards in Swiftwater Rescue, which recognize excellence in the dangerous technical rescue discipline of swiftwater and flood rescue.

The awards will be presented on Friday, May 14, 2010, at 7:30 p.m., at the annual National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) conference at Harrah’s Casino Resort Tunica, Mississippi ~ Mid-South Convention Center (Tunica, MS: 866-635-7095; http://www.nasar.org: 877-893-0702).

2010 Higgins & Langley Awards

Team Incident Award

Miles City Fire Department, Miles City, MT

On March 4th, 2009, the Miles City Fire Department responded to a call about a car in the frozen Tongue River, only to find a truck pinned against an ice floe. Backed by units of the department FF/EMT Branden Stevens, who had recently graduated from a swiftwater rescue course, along with FF Tim McGlothlin, successfully rescued the truck’s driver from the ice-choked river.

Potomac River Rescue Association (US Park Police, OWL Volunteer Fire Dept, Fairfax County Fire Dept. Swift Water Rescue Team, Fairfax County Police Dept. Aviation Division)

On May 31, 2009, at approximately 12:45 PM, Fire and Rescue Units from the Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton (OWL) Volunteer Fire Department responded to the Occoquan Reservoir Dam for a water rescue. Two fishermen were perilously stranded at the top of a seventy-two foot dam after their boat had been swept over it. OWL VFD rescue boats deployed on the reservoir 100 yards from the lip of the dam, while Fairfax County Fire Department’s (FCFD) Swift Water Rescue Team, Fairfax County Police Department’s Aviation Division (Fairfax 1) and the United States Park Police Department’s Aviation Unit (Eagle 1) responded. FCFD’s Swift Water Rescue Team set up below the dam while Fairfax 1 lowered PFDs to the fishermen, then towed one victim to waiting boats, while Eagle 1 rescued the other with a Billy Pugh net.

Individual Incident Award

Rodney O. Seals, Pennington County Water Rescue Team

On May 24th, 2009, a slow-moving thunderstorm flooded Rapid Creek, a watercourse near Rapid City, SD. Three adolescent boys became trapped by the rising water, one of them clinging to a tree branch in the current. Rodney Seals, who had just returned from a swiftwater rescue technician course, was the only trained and equipped responder available in the area. Seals was instrumental in rescuing not only the three trapped boys, but also in assisting six rescuers back from an island where they had become marooned during a rescue attempt.

Program Development

Clackamas County SWIFT Team

Clackamas County SWIFT Team is drawn from the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office and Clackamas County Fire, a unique collaboration between fire and police agencies. It is a FEMA Type 1 (14 member) Swiftwater and Floodwater Rescue Team, which responds both in and out of Oregon through the Federal EMAC program, and is the first team of its type in the state. All members are currently training to meet qualifications for a Type 1 designation, including qualification as swiftwater rescue technician, rescue specialist, rescue boat operator, EMT and animal rescue technician, as well as additional training in helicopter and flood operations.

AMR River Rescue Team Training, founder Taneka Burwell-Means - far right

American Medical Response NW River Rescue Team

American Medical Response (AMR) created the Oregon River Safety Program and developed a river rescue team. Prior to its formation in 1999 an average of two people drowned each year in the Sandy River at Glenn Otto Park in Troutdale. AMRs River Rescue Team endeavored to prevent drowning deaths by providing lifeguard services and public education. In 2002 it expanded to a second site on the Clackamas River near Gladstone, Oregon. No swimmers have drowned at either park in the years that AMRs River Rescue life guards have been on duty. Each spring AMR hires a team of full and part-time Oregon state-certified paramedics, emergency medical technicians, and first responders who must first pass a rigorous swim fitness test. Team members are then trained to conduct surface rescues, perform hazard mitigation, and provide public education on water safety. In 2009 AMR celebrated the completion of its eleventh season.

Maryland Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (MDHART)

Maryland Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team consists of the Baltimore County Police Department Aviation Division, Baltimore County Fire Department Special Operations Division and the Maryland Army National Guard (Co. C, 2nd Bn., 224th Aviation Regiment). MDHART training started with pilot extrication drills, equipment loading, victim capture devices, dunker training, and swim requirements, then progressed to airborne hoist drills beginning with empty field insertions/extractions and then moved to aircraft to roof drills, aircraft to trees, aircraft to drill tower and aircraft to car exercises. After a final swim test and dunker training in 2007 personnel conducted in-water and short haul system training. It took approximately 2 years of planning and training before the MDHART became fully operational. Training continues with quarterly aviation training with the MDARNG as well as annual re-certifications on the dunker, HEEDS, victim contact and device drills.

Special Commendation

Lisa Stuart – Safe-Tay Project (Scotland)

Lisa Stuart began the Safe-Tay project following the 2006 drowning death of her brother, Graham Motion, in the Tay River in Perth, Scotland. Motion’s death was compounded by the lack of qualified river rescue personnel. Stuart launched the Safe-Tay charity to improve river rescue capability, raise awareness of the hazards associated with water, and to work with local fire & rescue services, police, media and government agencies to actively promote water safety within the Tayside area, including poster campaigns and community events. They have also raised funds for the fitting of alarms linked to the city’s lifebelt stations. In the event of a lifebelt being removed from its station, an alarm will sound and the CCTV camera linked to the system will be activated, enabling emergency crews to locate a possible river rescue incident faster, and also preventing the malicious use of lifesaving equipment.  Stuart, who is a civilian and director of the Safe-Tay charity, also completed an operations-level swifwater rescue course to gain a better understanding of the hazards involved for crews responding river rescue incidents.

Outstanding Achievement

US Coast Guard – Red River Flood Response

In late March and early April 2009, the Red River crested at record levels in the area of Fargo and Grand Forks, ND, placing tens of thousands of citizens at risk. The Coast Guard began mobilizing members from units nationwide, and their aircraft, airboats and rescue crews assisted local agencies in North Dakota during the worst flooding yet recorded. Aircrews navigated across nearly 600 miles of treacherous upper Midwest territory with 60 knot winds, significant turbulence and blowing snow showers to reach Fargo, while boat crews experienced blinding snow storms, freezing temperatures and dangerous patches of ice, forcing them to make daily repairs to their airboats. Their combined efforts, however, resulted in 103 lives saved and provided assistance to over 7,000 people. Through close coordination with Sector Upper Mississippi River in St. Louis and liaisons from other Coast Guard units, as well as other county and local emergency operations centers, the Coast Guard took the lead for search and rescue operations and accounted for over 75 percent of all lives saved by the interagency response.


The Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards were established in 1993 by the National Association for Search and Rescue Swiftwater Rescue Committee in honor of Earl Higgins, a writer and filmmaker, who lost his life in 1980 while rescuing a child who was swept down the Los Angeles River, and Los Angeles County Firefighter Paramedic Jeffrey Langley, a pioneer in swiftwater rescue who lost his life in a helicopter incident in 1993.

The Awards have increased awareness about the need for specialized swiftwater and flood rescue training and preparedness. Today, worldwide training certifications have increased and agencies have been inspired to develop viable water rescue programs to protect the public and rescuers alike.

The Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards are sponsored by CFS Press, CMC Rescue, Inc., K38 Water Safety, Rescue 3 International, Rescue Source, Rescue ONE Connector Boats, and SkyHook Rescue Systems, Inc. Additional support for the Awards is provided by the Rudi Schulte Family Foundation, Jon Stephen and Karen Langley Stephen, the family of John B. and Shirley A. Rigg, and other generous individuals.

* * *

For more information: www.higginsandlangley.org
or contact Slim Ray 828-505-2917 (slimray@gmail.com)

New Force 6 Tactical / SAR PFD

Swiftwater Rescue Testing with Travis County STAR Flight

By Casey Ping

Program Director, Travis County STAR Flight, Texas USA

Force 6 Tactical / SAR PFD

Force 6 Tactical / SAR PFD

We think the new Force 6 Tactical/SAR PFD offers our helicopter personnel with the best device for hoisting/short hauling in the swiftwater environment.

Previously, we used various harnesses with a PFD over the top of the harness. This created some hoist/short haul vs. harnesses interface issues. One integrated unit solves that problem.

There were some logistical issues in the development. Harness design is really based upon intended use. In this case we wanted an integrated harness that was a comfortable swimming harness with unrestricted movement of the arms/legs, but was also as comfortable as possible when suspended in it. It was a matter of compromise to find the best combination of both worlds.

The upper part of the PFD and shoulder openings are large, offering unrestricted movement of the arms.

Users should understand that this PFD is not intended to be a harness rescuers will be in for a long time. Most hoist and short haul durations are measured in minutes. Multiple lifting points offer both traditional and dorsal attachment options. The waist lifting point allows for boat/ground based rescuers to do over-bank evolutions that may be necessary in some swiftwater environments. The PFD has Molle webbing so any of the hundreds of off-the-shelf Molle pouches/bags/pockets will work, giving the wearer endless possibilities for configuration and meeting environmental or mission demands.

The integrated harness has another benefit: it holds the PFD down. Normally the PFD wants to ride up as the wearer enters the water. It is amazing what a little flotation in the right position can do. Even though this PFD only has 18 lbs of flotation many of our rescuers float higher than in previous Force 6 PFDs. That is because the flotation is in the best place to be effective.

Force 6 Tactical / SAR PFD, tested by Travis County STAR Flight

Force 6 Tactical / SAR PFD, testing, Travis CO STAR Flight

Force 6 Tactical / SAR PFD

Force 6 Tactical / SAR PFD

Force 6 Tactical / SAR PFD

Travis County Texas STAR Flight

Swiftwater rescue test, Force 6 Tactical / SAR PFD

Overall we are very happy with the tactical PFD and they have been issued to all the Travis County STAR Flight and Texas Task Force 1 helicopter rescue personnel.

PHOTOS: (C) David Krussow, all rights reserved

March 16, 2010

Swiftwater Rescue Protects Rescuers and Gives Victims a Fighting Chance to Survive

by Nancy J. Rigg

Adam Bischoff was 15-years old. Earl Higgins was 29. Joel Burchfield was 11. Gail Ortega was 18. Cary Dean Burlew was 11. Jose Romero was 39. Robert Diaz, Jr. was only 2-years old. 39-year old Young Woo Kang was visiting Los Angeles from Korea. CHP Officers Britt Irvine and Rick Stovall were doing what they always did, serving the public, trying to help motorists in trouble. 33-year old John Henderson was a single father on a hike with his 9-year old son, Matthew. And Griselda Gallo, 14, Dulce Castruita, 14, and her brother Raul Nahle, 17, were high school friends who clung to one another, arm in arm, during their last few moments on earth.

All perished in swirling, churning floodwaters in Southern California.

Earl Higgins

Earl Higgins lost his life attempting to rescue a child in the LA River, 1980

On February 17, 1980, my fiancé, Earl Higgins, and I witnessed two young boys riding their bicycles perilously close to the edge of the flood-swollen Los Angeles River. Jimmy Ventrillo, who was just 10-years old, got too close to the water’s edge, accidentally dipping the front tire of his bicycle into the water.  The current was so forceful, both bike and boy were pulled into the deluge.  When Jimmy cried out for help, Earl made a thoughtful, heroic attempt to rescue him.  He ran to the river’s edge, removed his belt and tried to use it as an improvised throw-bag, tossing it to the boy, with the hope of reeling him back to the shore.  But when Jimmy grabbed onto the belt, the power of the moving water pulled Earl into the river, too. The stark image of man and boy being swept downstream at about 25 miles-per-hour is something that will haunt me always. Earl’s remains were not recovered until an agonizing 9-months later during a dredging operation in the Los Angeles Harbor.

How did Jimmy manage to eddy out of the river, when Earl could not? Where along the 30-mile stretch of river from Griffith Park to Long Beach did Earl succumb to the relentless power of the torrent? And why, why weren’t rescuers able to save him? Even as I struggled to rebuild my life in the aftermath of a flood disaster that killed more than 30 people in Los Angeles and caused millions of dollars worth of property damage, nothing seemed to quell these questions, which smoldered in the deepest part of my soul, springing to full fury every time there were news reports of someone else succumbing to churning floodwaters.

In the early 1980s, when we endured several successive years of flooding, I counted the dead, wincing when the numbers climbed to more than a dozen one year and 16-18 the next. With only a few exceptions, everyone who was swept away perished. There were no happy endings. Los Angeles flood control channels and rivers were open death traps.

The concerns I expressed to politicians fell on deaf ears and eventually dried up in a desert of disinterest when a lengthy drought set in. “The rains will come again,” I wrote with a renewed sense of urgency in December of 1991. “How many more lives will be lost?” In February 1992, the rains did come again. A series of powerful storms pummeled the Southland, wreaking havoc from Ventura County to San Diego killing nearly a dozen people.

Adam Bischoff

Adam Bischoff lost his life in the LA River, February 1992

The death of one young man was especially painful, coming just a few days before the 12th anniversary of Earl Higgin’s death. 15-year old Adam Bischoff, who had grown up during the blistering drought of the late 1980s, was mesmerized by floodwaters churning through an arroyo near his home. Like other children before him, Adam was drawn to the edge of the channel. And like other children before him, somehow Adam slipped into the torrent and was helplessly swept for miles downstream past rescuers who had neither the training nor equipment needed to perform a safe and effective “swiftwater rescue.” Adam drowned on February 12th and his remains were recovered the next morning when the floodwaters finally receded.

Adam Bischoff’s death mobilized our community in a way that no previous tragedy had. Political leaders, who finally emerged from the fog of risk management denial with pained and bewildered looks on their faces, suddenly wanted to know why local emergency responders were so ill prepared to handle inland water rescues. Although a handful of visionary water rescue specialists, including Los Angeles County Lifeguards, City and County firefighters, and rescue paramedics from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, had been quietly working for years to improve swiftwater rescue capabilities within their own agencies, it was only when the Los Angeles City Council and County Board of Supervisors got behind them that efforts to standardize and coordinate swiftwater rescue training, fund the purchase of much-needed equipment, and develop a proper flood safety education program were realized.

Flooding is the leading cause of weather-related death not just nationwide, but worldwide. On average, 20-30,000 victims perish in floods, with an estimated 3-500 deaths annually in the United States. Because no federal agency has consistently tracked death statistics in floods and incidents involving swiftwater, and since criteria state-to-state for judging what constitutes a “flood related death” is haphazard at best, these numbers are the result of my own efforts to track the statistics. One undeniable factor in the high death rate worldwide is the general lack of swiftwater rescue training and equipment for rescue personnel, who too often struggle, on the spur of the moment, to “do the best they can,” improvising rescues, like Earl Higgins did, often with equally tragic results.

Los Angeles swiftwater rescue

Los Angeles swiftwater rescue pre-deploy in advance of storms

In 1992 no one realized what a landmark our “swiftwater rescue revolution” in Los Angeles would represent. Since 1992, Los Angeles has developed the most comprehensive multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional swiftwater rescue and flood safety education program in the world. Under the leadership of the Los Angeles Multi-Agency Swiftwater Rescue Committee, with representatives from 18 fire-rescue, law enforcement, and other government agencies serving on it, more than 7,500 local fire-rescue, law enforcement, and lifeguard personnel have received swiftwater rescue training. Several hundred swiftwater rescuers who have advanced training serve on more than a dozen ground-based and helicopter swiftwater rescue teams that are pre-deployed to key locations throughout the county during times of high flooding risk.

We average more than 100 swiftwater rescue calls per year when the rains come. Even with the widespread use of the flood safety education video, “No Way Out”, which features the cautionary tale of Adam Bischoff’s death, children still manage to get swept away, and motorists, who are unwary of the dangers posed by flooded streets and low water crossings, end up getting stranded in quickly rising floodwaters. But thanks to the dedication of swiftwater rescuers throughout Los Angeles County, there are now more happy endings than sad ones.

Christopher Wieting was 4. Robert Johnson was 8. Edward Wieting was 27. All three were swept down the Pacoima Wash in March 1995. Jason Bastain was 7. When he fell into the wash in April 1995, LAPD Officer Mike Grasso and an unidentified 20-year attempted to rescue him. The force of the floodwaters immediately overwhelmed them all. 17 people were swept down the Pacoima Wash that spring. In January 1997, Mark Zarbis and Jose Nunez took a wild ride on a 46,000-pound, fully loaded cement truck that was hurtled down the Los Angeles River like a child’s toy. During the 1997-98 winter storm season, when El Nino conditions spawned torrential downpours, on one particularly rainy night in January, there were 32 calls for swiftwater rescue in Santa Clarita alone. In March 1998, 13-year old Megan Cole tried to grab her 14-year old friend, Jennifer Simpson, when Jennifer fell into Bull Creek. Both girls helplessly traveled more than five miles downstream. On April 17, 2000, 14-year old Abel Flores and 15-year old Daniel Rivera were swept down Little Dalton Wash towards certain death.

LAFD Swiftwater Rescue rig

LAFD Swiftwater Rescue rig

But unlike Adam Bischoff, Earl Higgins, and countless earlier victims, all of these victims were rescued by local swiftwater rescue teams. Although there are still occasional fatalities when floodwaters rise, in recent years, not a single death has been compounded by the lack of swiftwater rescue training and equipment.

Thanks to our pioneering swiftwater rescue program, victims who find themselves at the mercy of powerful floodwaters now have a fighting chance to survive.  And our visionary swiftwater and flood rescue program is being replicated, improved upon, and adapted to the needs of communities worldwide.

But more needs to be done.  The chances of survival should not depend on where a victim gets swept away.  Swiftwater rescue training needs to become part of every technical rescue team’s tool box.  Starting now.

— Bio —

Writer and documentary filmmaker Nancy Rigg produced the flood safety education videos, “No Way Out” and “Danger! Debris Flow”, in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Office of Education and Department of Public Works. In February 2000, she appeared before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee investigating ways to reduce the death toll in floods nationwide.

In a recent interview, James Ventrillo, who was just 10-years old when he got swept downstream in 1980, credited Earl Higgins with helping him eddy out of the Los Angeles River.  Sadly, Higgins was then caught in the fast current and swept to his death.

Earl Higgins and Nancy Rigg 1978

Earl Higgins and Nancy Rigg 1978, in remembrance

Posted by: njrigg | March 4, 2010

Boat Operations and Training (BOAT) Program

Boat Operations and Training (BOAT) Program

Responding to Hurricane Katrina 2005

The Boat Operations and Training (BOAT) Program establishes a national standard for the training, qualification, credentialing and typing of maritime law enforcement and rescue personnel.  While the BOAT Program is not mandatory, adoption and implementation of the program will provide a true national standard for the purpose of maritime interoperability at the federal, state and local levels. Standardization ensures maritime agencies can interact together and will bolster their ability to act as force multipliers nationwide.

Adapted from the U.S. Coast Guard’s boat forces training framework, the BOAT Program is comprised of vital maritime training and management components, including:

•    System Policy
•    The Training and Qualification Process
•    Boat Crew Qualification Tasks
•    Program Manager Roles and Responsibilities
•    Boat Crew Currency Maintenance
•    Documentation Requirements

CA OES Swiftwater Team in New Orleans 2005


Training and qualifications are established to ensure the readiness of multiple agency boat crews to complete assigned missions or carry out responsibilities safely and effectively. NASBLA BOAT Program staff can assist your agency in coordinating your BOAT Program training needs through resident courses or with exportable instructors.

For more information, contact NASBLA:


PHOTOS: California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES), used with permission

Posted by: njrigg | February 26, 2010

Flood Safety Information

No Way Out!
Flood Safety Information

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

Moving water is very dangerous. Just 6″ of fast moving water can knock you off your feet. Cars, including heavy trucks, can get swept away in less than 2-feet of swift water. Never drive through moving water. Nationwide, 70% of all flood-related fatalities are in vehicles.

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

When it rains, flood control channels, rivers, and arroyos can quickly fill up with fast-moving water, creating a potentially life-threatening danger to anyone who gets caught or swept away.

Even if it’s sunny downstream, it may still be raining heavily upstream, sending flash floods downstream. Be weather wise!

There are also dangerous hazards in flood control channels and other waterways, including 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.  It is extremely difficult to get yourself out of this unique hydraulic.

Other hazards include debris, floodwater contamination from toxic chemicals and waste, and slippery slopes along the edges.

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

Swiftwater Rescue Training

LASD Air Rescue 5 - Swiftwater Rescue Training

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

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 victims in swift water die when they get pinned against obstacles, or get trapped in submerged debris and vegetation.

What if you See Someone Fall Into the Water?

  • Immediately call 9-1-1! 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.

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. By endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of others.

Stay away! Stay alive!

Sponsored by the Higgins & Langley Memorial and Education Fund
A 501(c)3 non-profit organization


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