Swift water rescue team saves lives
Central Texans often hear the phrase “Turn around, don’t drown,” and yet, every year, numerous people find themselves in dangerous situations because of flash floods. That is why, in the late 1990s, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Swift Water Rescue Team was formed. When Sheriff James Wilson came into office, he added personnel and purchased new equipment, allowing the team to function as an elite rescue unit.
Lt. James David, commander of the all-volunteer rescue team, says the many low water crossings, combined with the lack of trained water rescue personnel, caused the sheriff to take notice. The current team 12 deputies certified in advanced swift water rescue operates three rescue boats and a hovercraft. Although the team is made up of volunteers, members must apply and go through an extensive interview process that includes meeting a number of physical requirements. Lt. David says, “We also have to have a healthy fear of the water—which keeps us safe—but not so much fear as to hamper our abilities.”
Based in Georgetown, the Swift Water Rescue Team is on call when the weather forecast indicates rain. If flooding is imminent, the team is activated through the county’s emergency operations center. They are then deployed to affected areas and dispatched to specific locations as calls come in.
During these times, the team is divided into three rescue boat teams and a standby team, “in case one of our other boats goes down due to mechanical or other issues,” says Lt. David. The hovercraft was added to the fleet in 2015. Lt. David explains that every call is a team effort among EMS, the Fire Department, and the Sheriff’s Department. “We could not do our job without the support of all of these organizations working together as a team on these calls.”
The first officers to arrive on scene triage the situation, get the equipment to the water’s edge, gather the safety gear, and determine the best rescue technique for the situation, including where the anchor points will be. Working with the other emergency organizations, the team sends some personnel upstream to watch for debris and others downstream in case of unusual circumstances.
It was an unusual circumstance that revealed the need for the hovercraft, which was purchased last May after the team struggled to rescue a double amputee who had been swept from her car. She was found downstream, hypothermic and holding onto a tree limb, with only her head above water. She was rescued, but because the boat was not able to maneuver back through the debris, she had to be taken ashore at a different place, where EMS rushed to meet the rescuers. The hovercraft, with its reverse thrusters and ability to hover up to nine inches above the water or ground, helps the team in such extreme situations.
Flood emergencies are stressful not only for the victims. “We feel stress for our personal safety and that of our colleagues,” says Lt. David. “We’re at Mother Nature’s mercy, and with that comes stress as well as a huge adrenaline rush.” Once the victim is rescued, there is extreme relief and happiness, he says: “There are a lot of high fives going on.” Then it’s on to the next call. During these times, team members put in up to 16 hours a day, which is emotionally draining. Why do they volunteer for such an exhausting and risky job? Lt. David explains, “It’s our job to save people. We love working as a team with other emergency agencies to help these people.”
Do you know what to do during a flash flood?
Most of us have heard the phrase “Turn around, don’t drown,” but Lt. David amends that phrase to “Slow down, turn around, and don’t drown.” He suggests slowing down in the rain for two reasons:
1. It takes only one half to one inch of water to cause a vehicle to hydroplane.
2. A driver has to have time to see the water in order to be able to turn around safely.
Lt. David says, “It’s important to pay attention and be aware of your surroundings.” For example, if you’re going downhill in the rain, you’re likely to encounter standing water at the bottom. If you do end up in a flooded area, Lt. David advises you to “stay with the vehicle, grab your cell phone, and call 911 right away.” If the vehicle moves or starts filling up with water, you’ll have to determine whether you need to get on the roof. “Try to stay with the vehicle until circumstances dictate otherwise,” says Lt. David, “and be sure to observe your surroundings so that you can give details to the rescuers.”