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'Absolutes' of Rescue

'Absolutes' of Rescue--Always and Never

Many years ago Jim Segerstrom (now deceased), an internationally known swiftwater rescue educator and writer, published a list of the so-called "absolutes" of swiftwater rescue principles. While not a complete list of all possibilities it was intended to highlight that rescue instructors must avoid being dogmatic in their instructional programs. Every rescue situation, or river accident in whitewater paddling, is going to be different than any other and instructors and rescuers must be flexible when teaching and responding to river and flood rescues.

Segerstrom's list emphasized the current body of knowledge at that time, regarding rescue principles that rescuers should follow when making rescues. In terms of protecting both victims and rescuers, it contrasted principles that rescuers should 'always' follow with others that rescuers should 'never' do. We've given a discussion of some of Segerstrom's list. As a founder of Rescue 3 International Sigerstrom's career in rescue education focused mainly on rescue squads in public agencies. Rescue 3 teaches rescue workshops and gives trainings worldwide.

While principles for all types of rescue are generally the same response in whitewater boating situations will be somewhat different than that of an urban rescue squad answering a call in their rescue trucks. Most of the time SAR personnel will likely be making a land-based approach whereas whitewater rescuers will respond to mishaps as they progress downriver on a paddling trip.

As you go through this list, take the point of view of a rescuer at work.

1. Always be PRO-ACTIVE. Think preventative search and rescue rather than just being in reactive mode if an accident happens. Being proactive for whitewater boating means taking rescue training, practicing the skills and strategies, and consistently emphasizing preparation, prevention, and avoidance of river accidents.
2. Always follow this order of priorities when working on a rescue--protect yourself and self-rescue first, then rescue or protect the security of your team, and finally rescue the victim. A victim stranded or stuck in a stream is already in a difficult position and it may take considerable effort to rescue that person. Avoid making the situation worse.
3. Always wear a Lifevest. This is a given in whitewater boating. Not only does one provide the necessary flotation but it provides warmth and protects from the bumps and bruises of a rugged river scene. As slimlined and comfortable as modern lifevests are there is no reason not to wear yours. In water activities of all types across America not wearing a PFD is still a primary reason that people drown.
4. Always deploy upstream spotters, ideally on both sides of the stream at the rescue location. Spotters warn other boaters coming downriver, or watch for floating debris on/under the surface that might injure rescuers working in the water. An exception in whitewater rescue might be when rescuer numbers are limited a spotter may have to serve dual roles.
5. Always have downstream backup for rescuers in the water in the event that a rescuer takes an unexpected swim. Again, because of limited numbers a rescue scene leader on shore might also double as the backup safety person.
6. Never put your feet down and try to stand if swept away by the current and find yourself swimming. Even in formal training workshops rescue participants have instinctively tried to stand when knocked over by strong current and seriously broke an ankle. Rather than being embarrassed because you're swimming, be grateful that you know how to perform a swimming self-rescue. Use it!
7. Always use the right equipment/gear for the job at hand. While this one applied more specifically to professional rescuers who may have a variety of technical equipment in their truck, for whitewater rescuers what is carried in a boat is limited. This is why thro-bags and safety ropes need to be of sufficient strength and length to do any task. A weak polypro line being used in a serious haul system might not be right for the task at hand.
8. Never count on a victim to help in her own rescue. Victims not experienced with the noise of rivers and whitewater can find their plight unnerving and mesmerizing. Even whitewater paddlers have become flustered if stuck or entrapped in the river. Rescuers have to assume that the victim can't, or won't, help. An exception could be a boater, trained and well-practiced in rescue, who is capable of assisting in her own rescue. It is always sensible and is less risk to rescuers, to have victims self-rescue if they can do so.
9. Never tie a rope around the torso of a rescuer who is going into the current to assist someone. If knocked over the rescuer could be trapped and unable to escape from the line. Wide use of rescue vests today reduce risks when being tethered to a line because of the capability for releasing from the line, but still wearing the lifevest.
10. Never tension a low line across the river at exact right angles to the current vector (direction of main river current ). A line set up as a tension traverse, or one belayed from both banks, can be effectively used to assist a rescuer in a wading rescue but should be angled relative to the current. If a line is established and tensioned at right angles the weight of the rescuer will sag the line in the middle of the current (where it is strongest and deepest). The rescuer will be unable to continue and will have to turn loose and become a swimmer, or worse, the rescuer could become entangled in the line and pulled underwater.
11. Once a rescuer makes the decision to contact (assist) a victim be prepared to carry all the way through to the best of your ability, yet always protect your own safety.
12. Always keep the rescue effort as simple as possible. A common acronym for this one is K.I.S.S--'keep it simple Sam'. Never, however, put all your eggs in one basket, or this could be stated, always have a contingency plan in motion if the first planned effort isn't going to be successful.

With the continued evolution of modern day whitewater and swiftwater rescue knowledge, perhaps this one could be added to Jim Segerstrom's original list of absolutes.
13. Always be consciously aware of both rescuer and victim psychology in emotional situations when a victim's in trouble. Keep the overall scene in focus and avoid tunnel vision when making the rescue. Stay flexible and be ready to adjust to the changing circumstances of a dynamic river environment.

When meeting the challenge of a river accident, never depart from the sound principles of your rescue training. This will always help reduce risks to rescuers.

ACA Instructor, Jim Jones, contributed to this discussion.

JS--10/26/'07; revised 11/'10
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