Water Rescue Essential Training

Did you know that drowning is the number one cause of death for children between the ages of 1-4? Approximately 3,400 people drown each year in the United States (Stop Drowning Now, 2023). Many fire departments around the country have continued to expand their response capabilities as the needs arise. Properly addressing and preparing for every type of emergency is an important aspect of being a proactive fire department. As boaters prepare and start heading out onto the lakes for some summertime recreation, it is a good opportunity to look around your jurisdiction and determine if you and your agency are prepared for the possibility of a water-related emergency.

Being prepared to handle surface and sub-surface water related incidents should be a concern if your jurisdiction has hazards such as lakes, rivers, ponds, and even pools. One of the most useful tools for assessing your response capabilities and necessary training is NFPA 1670, Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents. NFPA 1670 provides the basis for the awareness, operations, and technical level for incident involving rope rescue, structural collapse, confined space rescue, vehicle search and rescue, animal rescue, surface water rescue, swift-water rescue, dive rescue, etc. Although many areas have not adopted NFPA 1670 into law, this standard does provide many of the minimal competencies required for any responder at the scene of these specialty incidents. NFPA does provide free access to the standards that can be view at their website.

However, instead of discussing the importance of this standard, I want to target in on one specific item from NFPA 1670, chapter 16.3.4. This section states “any member of the organization who could be expected to perform functions as the operator of a watercraft shall be provided training to meet the job performance requirements for technician-level watercraft operations as defined in NFPA 1006 (NFPA, 2023).”  For departments that have all-sports lakes, this makes this hazard even more serious. What type of training requirement do departments have in place to assure this requirement is met? What should a training program have to assure it meets this need?

I believe that starting out with a basic boater’s safety course is one of the best first steps that any department who utilize watercraft for rescue purposes could take. Although most emergency responders are over the age of 16 and do not require a boater’s safety course to operate watercraft, these courses offer a lot of knowledge that rescuers may not receive otherwise. Here are some examples of important course components that can be learned in a course from the American Boating Association:

  • Basic Boating – learning the basic terminology will help improve communication between team members and the public.
  • Proper boat anchoring – properly learning to anchor the boat can be beneficial during rescue operations and can help keep the boat in place from currents or weather conditions.
  • Left and Right (port and starboard) – banks are names in relation to a boat’s direction heading downstream and buoys may be relative to the colors associated.
  • Towing, trailering, and launching the boat.
  • Differences between PFD’s – All PFDs are not the same and learning what is required on personal watercraft can help identify how a victim may be floating.
  • Weather and the impact of rough waters.
  • How to drive watercraft – understanding the driving rules and rule of give-way and stand-on is important to reduce potential for accidents.

Training our personnel properly helps to ensure overall safety of our personnel and the public due to the agencies enhanced skills and abilities. Fortunately, there are several options for accomplishing this training. There are several online courses that provide the necessary basic level of training, and some of them are free. Another excellent source of information and locating courses is the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary. Their website even has a course locator for public education classes (United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, 2023). Many of these classes are free or low-cost. Finally, to put all the boating skills into action it would be prudent to create and conduct a competency exam. The competency exam should be developed based on the agency’s intended uses and equipment available. The agency could utilize marking buoys as markers to conduct actions such as cornering, stopping drills, anchoring, and maintaining control in a steady position. This may not be even close to all the training that is needed, but it is excellent starting point.



NFPA. (2023). Standard on operations and training for technical search and rescue incidents. Retrieved from National Fire Protection Association: https://www.nfpa.org/codes-and-standards/all-codes-and-standards/list-of-codes-and-standards/detail?code=1670

Stop Drowning Now. (2023). Facts and stats about drowning. Retrieved from Stop Drowning Now: https://www.stopdrowningnow.org/drowning-statistics/

United States Coast Guard Auxiliary. (2023). Boating safety education. Retrieved from United States Coast Guard Auxiliary: http://www.cgaux.org/boatinged/

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