How do rescue teams search a flooded city?

By: Laurie L. Dove

Creating, Equipping and Dispatching Flood Rescue Teams

Hurricanes can have deadly consequences, and so can tornadoes and lightning. But floods, particularly inland floods like the kind that overtake city streets and buildings, are the leading cause of weather-related death in the U.S.

Floodwater causes nearly as many fatalities each year as hurricanes, tornadoes and lightning combined, a stark reality that makes flood response all the more critical [source: Office of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner].


Some floodwater rescue teams comprise local and regional responders. These responders may be members of a community's fire, police or ambulance departments who have been cross-trained in basic water rescue techniques. Or they may be volunteers who have received similar training.

In addition, elite teams of specially trained flood rescuers may be mobilized as part of a regional or national response. In the U.S., the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) outlines the training standards for these teams in its detailed Technical Rescuer Professional Qualifications manual, which is used a benchmark for rescue training [source: Turnbull].

Rope skills, such as knot tying and rope systems, are a crucial element of a well-versed water rescue team. In addition, teams must know how to deploy a rescue stretcher, also known as a "litter," and safely return it to the watercraft with a passenger aboard. They'll also have standard rescue equipment on hand, such as whistles, megaphones to communicate, extra life jackets, rain gear, lanterns and flares [source: North Carolina Department of Public SafetyIRIN News].

Teams must learn to navigate rescue boats through city streets and contend with buildings, vehicles, hidden snags and dangerous debris. Floodwaters may be contaminated with raw sewage and chemicals. What's more, the water often flows swiftly, rises quickly and forms strange currents because of the many obstacles it encounters [sources: Environmental Protection Agency, IRIN News].

Before a flood rescue team can spring into action, however, it needs to know where to go. Rescuers use maps to figure out which areas are likely to be flooded; they also learn how to locate survivors in the absence of landmarks. Without landmarks, those seeking rescue can become confused when relaying their locations.

In some situations, teams are dispatched by local emergency services operators receiving distress calls via cell phones. They may rely on information from on-site volunteers who can identify people trapped by floodwaters. In addition, teams may receive communication from air support, such as helicopters flying over rain-soaked areas to find people stranded by rising waters. It's a far cry from simply driving around a flooded city in a boat, looking for survivors.