Rescue people from a flood

Imagine you and your family are camped out on the second floor of your house watching floodwaters rising steadily towards your bedroom window. It is too late to evacuate; your only hope is for someone to come and rescue you.

But rescuing people from a flood is not as simple as dispatching a boat or a chopper. It takes high levels of training and coordination for rescue teams to bring survivors to safety without endangering themselves. Here is how they do it.

The training

There are two basic types of floods: those that occur gradually, such as the recent flooding in Australia, allowing communities time to move to higher ground; and flash floods that may happen with little or no warning, like those that caused significant loss of life in Brazil in mid-January. It is flash floods that usually present the greatest risks and challenges to rescuers.

Anyone involved in flood rescue should have training in first aid and how to operate a radio, but many are also certified in Swiftwater Rescue. Hugh Fogarty, who heads the flood rescue team of UK charity, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), explained that the first thing individuals learn during Swiftwater Rescue training is hydrology, or “how water behaves when it’s moving very quickly through a confined channel”. This includes learning how to read the surface of the water for clues about the location of hidden obstacles like cars and concrete posts that could capsize your boat.

Next, trainees learn how to keep themselves safe through skills such as “defensive swimming” and precautions like using a pole to check for open manholes when wading through floodwater. Working as a team can also decrease risk: one member of a team may be deployed upstream to warn teammates of large debris being swept towards them while two more may be stationed downstream with ropes in case someone falls into the water. 

Rescuers also need to know how to handle a boat in fast-moving water. According to Julie Ryan, a volunteer with British NGO the International Rescue Corps (IRC), there are ways to angle a boat so it is not fighting the current.

The kit

Preparedness kits issued to Red Cross volunteers doing flood rescue in Mozambique include whistles and a megaphone to communicate with survivors, ropes for pulling them to safety and extra life jackets and rain gear to keep them safe and dry. The kits also contain lanterns and flares, and radios for staying in touch with HQ.

Assessing the situation

Before dispatching rescue teams, you need to know where to send them. Large expanses of floodwaters can mask landmarks leaving unprepared rescuers disoriented and unable to locate survivors. Air reconnaissance can be helpful for building a picture of what is happening on the ground, but is not always available.

''We wouldn't just ride round and look for people. We'd know where we were going and what we were looking for''

Rescuers have training in how to read the contours of a map to work out which areas would be flooded, but also rely on local knowledge to guide a search. Organizations like the Red Cross and the IRC have networks of local volunteers who may know how many people are marooned in a particular farm, village or street. Where cell phone technology is available, survivors themselves may alert emergency services of their location.

“We wouldn’t just ride round and look for people,” said Ryan of the IRC. “We’d know where we were going and what we were looking for.”

Information about particular risks associated with a flood situation is also helpful. Ryan recalled that during a November 2009 mission to rescue people from the flooded town of Cockermouth in northwestern England, police informed them that the rapidly flowing water had emptied a scaffolding yard and they should watch out for the heavy metal poles.

The rescue

Getting survivors from dry land onto a boat is relatively simple, but rescuing them from the second floor of a building surrounded by rushing water presents more of a challenge. In such situations, a second boat may be sent slightly upstream to create an eddy that holds the first boat in place against the side of the building while people are loaded into it.

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As most rescue boats can only accommodate three or four people at a time, rescuers prioritize the injured, the young and the elderly and often have to make several trips to bring everyone to safety.

If, despite all precautions, someone does fall into the water, a spotter on the boat would try to keep them in sight for as long as possible. "The worst scenario is they just disappear and you’re unable to locate them," said Ryan. "But you’d hope they’d manage to find somewhere to hold on until you catch up to them."

Once everyone is on dry land, rescue teams hand over to relief agencies to feed and shelter survivors and begin the long process of restoring areas covered in mud and debris.