Safety and Rescue Discussion Group
In the spring, NRS puts on boating safety training for its employees. We try to schedule our good friend Charlie Walbridge to lead the training session. Charlie is the coauthor of the Whitewater Rescue Manual and one of the leading experts in the field of swiftwater rescue and training. His expertise and dedication to boating safety was in part the reason for his being one of the first seven folks inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame.
While Charlie was here for this spring’s training, several of us sat down with him to discuss boating safety and rescue. Cody Meacham, Rescue & Government Accounts Manager, has been working with search and rescue organizations and others in the water rescue community for several years. Brian Chaffin, Mountain West Wholesale Manager, had five seasons guiding multiday raft trips before coming to work at NRS. Blake Longworth, Specialty Accounts Manager, works closely with Cody helping our rescue customers and is a dedicated kayaker. Karl Krehbiel also previously worked with Cody, before putting his extensive computer skills to work in other areas of the company.
In addition to taking classes with Charlie, all these NRS folks hold Rescue 3 Swiftwater Rescue Technician 1 certificates. Brian has stepped it up a notch with the Swiftwater Rescue Technician Advanced certification. These gentlemen have also had a hand in the development of such NRS safety products as the new Pilot Knife and Rapid Rescuer PFD.
Check out their interesting and lively discussion:
Charlie: It depends on what kind of trip you’re going on – whether it’s a day trip, an overnight, whether it’s isolated or along the road. The obvious basics are a throw bag, three or four carabineers, a couple of prussic loops so you can construct a Z-drag and a couple of webbing loops for constructing anchors. I like to wear one of those webbing loops around my waist so I have a short length of line to help someone out– a lot of us back East call that a “guide belt.” You just secure the loop with a carabineer. And then, of course, you should have a knife and a whistle on your life jacket.
Brian: And that jumps us into a more advanced boater than we’re often dealing with. We often get the call where the question is: “I just got my new kayak and life jacket. What else do I need so that I can safely hit the water!” I agree with Charlie that folks should have all those items, and know how to use them, but most of our entry level customers won’t have knowledge of their use. So, certainly a throw bag which they know how to use. And for kayaking, go with the kayak specific throw bags. So the basics are: PFD, helmet, throw bag, whistle and possibly a knife.
Blake: I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to carry a rope, you need to carry a knife.
e-News: So those are the essentials, certainly for kayaking. Any further suggestions for other types of boating?
Brian: The main things that determine what to have with you when rafting are: No. 1, your skill level; No. 2 your knowledge of systems; and No. 3, the river that you’re running. For example, running water like the Snake River in Hells Canyon or the Grand Canyon I probably wouldn’t take my wrap kit – there’s nothing much there to wrap a boat on. If I’m going on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, I’m carrying 150’ of static line, enough webbing to make seven anchors, enough prussic to match up with my static line, at least four pulleys and a lot of carabineers. My wrap kit weighs darn near as much as my cooler! It just depends on your load, the experience of the people you’re boating with and the situation of your boating trip.
Charlie: We haven’t gone into first aid yet. I carry a very basic first aid kit. Some big absorbent pads, in case of heavy bleeding; an ACE bandage, which is very useful for immobilizing something like a dislocated shoulder; and duct tape, which is good for a lot of things. The only medication I carry is some Tylenol, because sometimes someone will get a splitting headache or strain something.
Brian: No Benadryl?
Brian: Benadryl is my almost No. 1 over Tylenol, because I have a real fear of anaphylactic shock in people and just people’s random allergies. Today, allergies are more prevalent than ever and you just never know what might happen to someone to cause them to have a severe reaction to something. And, Benadryl may buy you some time to get to medical attention.
Charlie: You don’t have that allergy yourself?
Brian: I don’t, although I think I’m starting to develop one to shellfish. It’s really weird; I get really puffy these days when eating crab right out of the shell.
Charlie: Certainly anyone who has special medical needs should be carrying that with them. I take some medications everyday and I carry them right in my first aid kit. If I had a problem like a bee sting allergy, which is fairly common, I would have a couple of Epi-Pens® (epinephrine injectors) and plenty of Benadryl with me.
Blake: And, have told the other group members that you have the allergy and where you keep the medicine and how to use it.
Brian: A lot of the new literature says that more allergies are developing later in life and you just never know when someone can get a reaction. So Benadryl is up there on the list of things to have along.
Charlie: When did you start thinking about this, when you were guiding?
Brian: Yeah, when I started to lead trips. When you sign that form that says you’re responsible for 26 lives for six days in the wilderness you start to think about all kinds of stuff! I’ve gotten the Wilderness First Responder certification, recertified it once, got halfway through EMT training. So just throughout that whole process, I’ve become more aware of issues like this.
e-News: Any other thoughts on safety equipment you think should be along on different types of trips?
Blake: I think we should mention that the apparel we’re wearing is part of our safety system. Make sure you’re dressed for the air and water temperature. Plan so that if you do have to go into the water for personnel rescue or to set up a Z-drag, that you’re properly dressed for it.
Cody: I work a lot with fire departments who are outfitting teams that deal with swiftwater emergencies and the first thing they look at is their personal protective gear. This is going to be a drysuit, or a wetsuit for warmer climates, footwear with a sturdy sole on it and good ankle support. Then, of course, a good PFD.
e-News: I’ve seen posts on boater forums that say they won’t boat with someone who doesn’t dress properly for possible rescue conditions. Just like the rescue throw bag that you carry is to rescue your buddy, they need to carry one to rescue you – so everyone needs to dress in such a way that they can go into the water to help others.
Brian: Something I’ll add is I carry a portable backpacking stove and fuel, some dried soup packets and some quick energy food items. Then, if someone gets cold or goes for a swim, you’ve got things to warm them up and get some fuel back in them.
Cody: What do people use for snake bites?
Charlie: Today’s medical advice is to get the person to medical help as quickly as possible. The old “cut and suck” removal of venom is no longer recommended. And the severity of the snake bite will vary. I’ve seen some people get bitten and it didn’t affect them. Then, I had a friend who got bitten last summer and she spent a week in the hospital.
Blake: That brings up a good point. One thing we should definitely carry as safety equipment is knowledge. We should have an evacuation plan; know what to do if an emergency forces us to discontinue the trip.
Brian: With today’s technology, there are satellite phones and personal locator beacons that are increasingly available. And cell phones. Most day trips and trips along the roadside should have cell phone coverage. Well, maybe not in Idaho. (Lots of laughter!)
Charlie: With most of the rivers in the east, guides and other folks know where they can go to get cell phone reception. On some rivers they have radio systems set up. The New and Gauley Rivers both have enough people going down that the outfitters put in a network that covers the river and the Park Service is working off their net. But in other areas there are places to get out with a cell phone, which some guys use to order pizza when they know what time they’ll be in town. Still, it’s very useful in emergency situations.
We’re crossing over into training and first of all, swiftwater rescue training will help you get yourself and others out of trouble. The second part is first aid and emergency management, which is what you do when you get the person out and they’re hurt.
e-News: Which brings us into another topic – what basic safety techniques should every boater know?
Blake: I think first and foremost is the ability to swim, how to swim in whitewater, know how to self-rescue, know what an eddy is, understand how various river features work. Basically, how to take care of yourself if you’re out of your boat. As any rescue class will tell you, the best rescue is a self-rescue.
Brian: The first day of most three-day swiftwater rescue classes focuses largely on river features, types of current, laminar flow – understanding them and teaching you skills to self rescue. The second thing would probably be knowing your own equipment and the people you’re boating with. Then you will move into the technicalities of throw bagging someone.
Blake: Yes, the ability to use a throw bag and the ability to set a Z-drag are probably the two most important techniques to master.
Charlie: I’ve hardly ever used a Z-drag out on the river. I’ve been boating almost 40 years and I’ve used a Z-drag probably 2-3 times. But a lot of that is because there are a number of tricks you can use to get a boat unpinned, besides setting up a Z-drag. I think I’ve used a Z-drag to “unpin” an automobile as often I have boats.
Brian: Generally I’ve just used throw bags and vector pulls to dislodge boats. Seriously, the only time I’ve seen a Z-drag used is on the Middle Fork when the giant sweep boat, 24-feet long and 10-feet wide, misses camp! Then, you’re dragging it back up. (Laughter)
Karl: Being a more beginning and novice boater, the things that helped me most in the rescue classes I attended were learning the things “not to do” as well. For example, if you’re boating with your family and one of the members is out of the boat, the first instinct is to jump in after them – the wrong thing to do. So, learning what are the things not to do, as well as what to do for the particular river situation is very important.
Starting from the beginning you need to be very clear with people, “Absolutely do not do this…” A saying like “Reach, Throw, Go” was very helpful to me. That is, first reach out to the person in the water if they are close enough. It that doesn’t work, the next best option is to throw them a rope. Only if these things don’t work would you consider going into the water after them, and then only if you are equipped and trained to do it.
Charlie: And certainly, not everyone can do an eight-day, full on, wilderness first responder course. It’s hard and if I didn’t have my winters where I’ve got the time, I’d have trouble justifying doing it. But everyone can take CPR and a good basic first aid course. But the problem for me and others is you don’t get much practice. The whole idea when you’re on the river is to not put yourself in the situation where you need to use those skills. If you find yourself doing a lot of rescues and using your first aid a lot, then maybe you need to start boating with other people or going on easier rivers. (Lots of laughter)
e-News: And this is something that’s hard to get across in a written piece, but what are some basic knots that boaters should know? I see Brian over here trying to tie a knot.
Blake: Brian is NOT getting this one correct. Ha Ha Ha!
Charlie: What are you doing?!
Brian: I’m trying to tie a self-equalizing boatman’s anchor and I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong.
Blake: Brian could use some self-equalization! The bowline is an important knot for boaters to learn.
Brian: I’m the fastest bowline tier in North America, but the only way I know how to tie it is with one hand. But go ahead, Blake.
Blake: The bowline is a good one.
Brian: If you’re working with webbing you need to know the water knot and the double fisherman and the figure-eight.
Charlie: And you can tie the figure-eight so many ways. You can make it work like a bowline, you can make it act like just about anything. And here we have Brian showing off his one-handed bowline skills.
Blake: So to recap, the bowline, figure-eight, water knot and the double fisherman, so you can tie prussic loops.
Charlie: But you need a figure-eight before everything.
e-News: So, do you think rescue training is advised for every boater?
Charlie: A certain amount, if you consider swimming, wading in swiftwater and how to use a throw bag. Everyone should have that much. Where you go beyond that depends on what you’re doing. If you’re running Class II rivers and doing mostly day trips, you may not need to go beyond that level. But if you’re out there running Class V creeks every weekend, a swiftwater class is a beginning and you and your buddies are probably getting a lot of practice.
Brian: And everybody should at least have the safety discussion with the people they boat with. And not just before you go on the river but you should be familiar with the skills of the people you boat with.
Charlie: So what do you do, Brian, question everybody?
Brian: I give a safety talk before I go on the river with anyone. I don’t care it they’re…
Charlie: You didn’t give me a safety talk! (Lots of laughter)
Brian: I apologize, Charlie. I fell into what’s known now as the Expert Halo. In today’s outdoor educational world, there’s something called the Expert Halo, where you go with someone who you’re so confident in their abilities that you totally forget everything you know about safety. I was so confident boating with Charlie Walbridge that I just decided ‘eh, I’m here, everything’s just fine.’
e-News: I can’t talk down to the safety god!
Brian: Charlie’s not going to lead me down anything I can’t come back from. I hope.
Charlie: I don’t talk to or question people about their skills. And certainly most people don’t.
e-News: You think it’s not prudent?
Charlie: Oh, it’s probably very prudent. There are a lot of prudent things we should do. (Laughter)
Brian: Like not boating!
Charlie: I think with most private paddlers or groups of friends that get together to go boating, if you know there’s a novice you’re concerned about, you talk to them. These are peers and you’ve got a pretty good idea of who they are, including who doesn’t bring a throw bag, or doesn’t dress warmly enough, or forgets their shuttle keys.
e-News: At least for me, most trips I go on, it’s a mixed group. Usually we haven’t all boated together before. So, the standard safety talk just gets everyone on the same page.
Charlie: It sounds like you’re talking about rafting. If a group of kayakers show up for a Class IV river and they don’t have a certain level of skill, they’re going to be swimming within the first 50 yards anyway. But I understand what you’re saying, because I’d do the same thing if I’m taking folks on a rafting trip.
Brian: I’m not a kayaker and I am feeling the responsibility for others, especially those in my boat.
Charlie: You just want to make sure that everyone just sort of knows what’s going on.
Brian: That’s right.
e-News: Charlie if you’re going with some people who haven’t run that river or that stretch before, do you gather folks together and say things like, “I’m very familiar with the river, so how about I lead this stretch.’ Or, ‘When we get to this point, we’ll want to stop and scout.’
Charlie: If we’re talking about some people that I know haven’t been there, or someone in the group approaches me and says ‘Hey, I haven’t been down this.” I’ll certainly talk to them and try to get a feel for what level they’re operating from. So, especially with a group I haven’t boated with much, I’ll talk about what’s up ahead and where we might want to stop. And I might ask something like ‘What do you want to do at the first waterfall? Do you want to scout or just have someone tell you what the line is?’
It’s tricky, because you can get peer pressure where people act like they’re more confident than they really are and then they’re swimming in a place where they’d rather be boating.
Brian: The macho philosophy. ‘No one else is speaking up on this; I better just close my mouth and go. I can do this!’
Cody: Would you like to go over what you give in a rafting safety talk?
e-News: On the website, we have an article on the Rafting Put-in Safety Talk that folks can look at. It covers the general, non river-specific points of a good safety talk.
Any other equipment or apparel points to add? Anything on first aid kits?
Brian: What’s in your first aid kit depends on the length and remoteness of your trip. For a multi-day, you should have a full kit and knowledge on the trip so you can evacuate someone if you need to. Things like how to use a Campsite Counter as a backboard, how to carry someone, how to call for help.
Charlie: You should have thoughts about something like, if we have trouble at Ladle on the Selway, what are you going to do to get help. Are you going to go to the Ranger Station, are you going to use your satellite phone, what?
Then if you’re talking about an expedition, you should be thinking about advanced medical gear and someone who knows how to use it.
Brian: As far as general safety equipment to have along on a multi-day, it depends on the characteristics of the river. If the river presents the possibility of wrapping a boat, you should have a Z-drag kit along; consisting of some static line, prussic cord, webbing for anchors and at least a couple of pulleys. Then obviously have the knowledge to use it.
Blake: It’s important to use the technology you have available to you. If all you have is a cell phone, bring that. If you have or can get a satellite phone, by all means bring it. Anything you have that might help save a life, you should bring it.
Brian: If you’re going on a dangerous multi-day trip, say the Selway at high water – rent a satellite phone! They’re not that expensive. And always tell someone where you’re going.
e-News: And if you’re the only one of the group that’s familiar with the evacuation points, be sure to let others know – in case you’re the one that needs to be evacuated!
Okay, for those who are interested in doing swiftwater rescue training, what’s available and how can people find sources?
Charlie: There are a lot of people who teach classes for the American Canoe Association; we have one- and two-day classes. You can find the syllabus at www.americancanoe.org and contact them to find out who’s teaching and where. Also, there are a lot of outfitters and kayak schools who run classes. And there are groups out there who put on training who aren’t affiliated with any other organization; you just have to research the reputation of the group.
And lastly, Rescue 3 (www.rescue3.com) has excellent programs. They’re more firefighter oriented and also deal with chain of command and incident management. That’s not something a non-commercial boating trip uses; everybody pitches in and helps as best they can. You don’t wait for a leader to tell you what to do, you just see what needs to happen and get going. But, Rescue 3 was one of the first organizations to teach getting in the water and getting wet when you do rescue work. I have a lot of respect for them.
Brian: They also started a course a couple of years ago different from their firefighter training. Whitewater Rescue Technician (WRT) is a recreationalist-based course. In there, they’ll touch on things like incident command, but it’s primarily aimed at the things a private boater needs.
And for the Mountain West boater there’s a non-affiliated organization called Desert Mountain Medicine (www.desertmountainmedicine.com). They teach wilderness first responder courses, wilderness EMT courses and swiftwater classes. They’re relatively inexpensive and really nice courses.
Cody: We’ve named just a few here, but there are a number of good programs available and we can’t name them all. Check with local paddle sports dealers, search and rescue organizations and fire departments for training in your area.
Brian: Most search and rescue groups near a river corridor have to have people on their staffs that are trained in swiftwater rescue, so they’ll know sources for that training.
e-News: Anything else on swiftwater rescue training or anything else?
Karl: How do you walk the line between growing the sport, building safety awareness and not scaring people away from what can be a quite safe form of outdoor recreation? This is more of a broad question…
Brian: It’s a great question.
Charlie: If you look at where the sport ranks with other popular outdoor activities, it’s roughly equivalent in terms of risk to scuba diving and rock climbing and all of these are incredibly safer than bicycling, which is one with the highest death rate. It’s like anything else; people are used to the risks they deal with often, like riding a bicycle or driving a car. Then, when they look at something like running rivers, which they’re not used to, the risks look bigger. To me being on the water is considerably more manageable than doing anything in traffic. (Laughter)
Many people aren’t used to taking responsibility for themselves and what they do. So, when in paddling you talk about being responsible for what you do and planning for risks, it’ll make some people uncomfortable. But certainly someone who’s uncomfortable with taking responsibility for their own risks should be doing something else.
Blake: Like pottery.
Charlie: Now that’s something that’s dangerous. Those kilns are hot!
What do you think, Brian, is the sport safer now or more dangerous than in the past?
Brian: I think the sport is a lot safer, through general awareness and knowledge. For commercial operations, peer pressure from competitors has been a contributor – for example, one outfitter starts requiring helmets, all the others on the river follow suit. And liability insurance rates give great incentive to companies to have guides undergo swiftwater training as a requirement for employment. The boating public benefits from all this.
Charlie: And look at the strides that have been made in equipment since the early 1970s. At that time there were maybe four places on the entire East Coast where you could buy a kayak. People were making their own boats, cockpit openings were tiny, there were no internal supports. Outfitting in your boat was primitive; you were buying it for people that were making it as a side business or making it yourself. There have been huge advances in the safety of kayaks, both in terms of things like better construction, better outfitting, larger cockpits, etc. You look at today’s boats in comparison to boat from the past; they’re a lot stiffer, walls are more secure and boaters are more aware.
Blake: That being said, the advances in equipment have brought more safety to the sport but at the same time we’re running stuff that’s harder than previously thought possible. Things that were considered Class VI are now being downgraded to Class V or even IV. Things that were unattainable are now possible. Of course, most of the paddlers out there aren’t boating those upper limits.
Charlie: But the standards have gotten considerably higher. A lot of it is that training is much more accessible now. When I started, we read a couple of very basic books and then went out there and experimented. We had some bad experiences and found a few people who knew a little bit and gradually built our skills up. Now, you can learn everything I learned in my first five years of paddling in a weeklong course at a good paddling school. People learn faster, the gear’s good and they just cut to the chase. There are some amazing athletes in the sport doing incredible things.
Blake: Do you think then that we are running harder whitewater now but we’re doing it safer than we ever have before?
Charlie: I think overall the sport is safer than it was, although not from the standpoint of the death rate. The number of people involved has increased probably 20-fold since I started. On top of that, we didn’t know much. So, running a Class IV river was as hard then as running one of these Class V+ rivers is now. I can remember when we used to run the Upper Youghiogheny; every trip someone would get a crack in their boat that wouldn’t let them continue, blow their foot braces out, or tear their sprayskirt. Now gear is good enough, that doesn’t happen.
e-News: Okay. Great discussion! Thanks to all of you for taking the time to participate. I imagine we’ll also get some great reader feedback.
Editor’s Note: We welcome your feedback and/or questions on these important topics. Just send an email to email@example.com and I’ll pass it along to the group.
It would be interesting to know how many beginner paddlers read your discussion, understand it, and decide to learn more, take safety courses, etc. My safety 'tag' seems to fit your discussion exactly.
Main Reasons for Injuries and Fatalities - Canoe and Kayak - in Whitewater
Following were culled from Fred Couch's personal review of years of the online
Degree of Difficulty of Whitewater
In Order of occurrence numbers, and boat types
Class 1 – 2: mostly in canoes
Class 3 - 4 - 5 – 6: mostly K1, OC1
Fred’s Proposed Safety Tag:
Some term clarification from Fred:
We read with interest the report of your discussion with Charlie Wallbridge. Great synthesis of the key issues of safety and rescue in moving water.
However, we'd like to comment on the following statement from the discussion:
.... Rescue 3 (www.rescue3.com) has excellent programs. They’re more firefighter oriented and also deal with chain of command and incident management. That’s not something a non-commercial boating trip uses; everybody pitches in and helps as best they can. You don’t wait for a leader to tell you what to do, you just see what needs to happen and get going.
As a provider of Rescue 3 courses in Western Canada, and as kayakers and expedition rafters in our leisure-time, we strongly believe in some form of Incident Command to manage ANY rescue incident, whether you are a firefighter or a boater. This is because if you are using Incident Command correctly, no one is waiting around for a leader to tell them what to do. Rather, your leader is identified at the put-in, as well as those with specific skills like first aid or a strong rope/rigging background. Then, if an incident does arise, it only takes seconds to assign other jobs to the remaining people.
It doesn't make sense to have an EMT running off to do downstream safety or your best rope weenie volunteering to keep onlookers at a safe distance while others fumble with bowlines and prussiks. Properly used, Incident Command means everyone is working simultaneously on their specific job, and not duplicating efforts or worse, working at cross-purposes, while something equally important goes undone because no one is responsible for the big picture. You don't have to call it Incident Command, but we honestly believe you should use some form of it to properly manage a rescue anywhere, anytime.
Keep up the great work. You guys rock!