Prepare your agency for a mass water rescue using this model

In Spring 2014, several Pennsylvania agencies partnered to ensure that a specially trained team of officers will be available for deployment during future hurricanes and other mass-flooding events


Your community is hit by a fast-moving, hard-hitting hurricane or other torrential rainstorm. People are trapped in their vehicles and others are in need of transport from homes in flooded area. You know that you do not have the proper equipment — or training — needed for a textbook rescue.

What do you do?

For most officers, there is only one possible answer. You do what you can, with what you have available, and hope that’s enough. You hope that you’ll be able to do so safely and go home to your family at the end of your shift.

Waterways Conservation Officers with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission have established the Swift Water Emergency Response Team (SWERT). Here they practice high-speed recovery.
Waterways Conservation Officers with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission have established the Swift Water Emergency Response Team (SWERT). Here they practice high-speed recovery. (PoliceOne Image)

Changing the Paradigm
In the past several years, Waterways Conservation Officers with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) have faced an increasing number of floodwater disasters across the state. Although the PFBC is the primary marine enforcement agency for Pennsylvania, it had been a longstanding policy that officers were not search and rescue personnel and, although trained for emergency rescues, were not properly equipped for mass-rescue operations. 

This did not mean they sat on the sidelines. When situations occurred and local emergency management officials called for help, PFBC WCOs were often the first — and often the only — units available. They lived in the communities and did what they could, putting themselves at great risk.

That is about to change. 

In Spring 2014, the PFBC Bureau of Law Enforcement Personnel partnered with Pennsylvania Army National Guard and the Pennsylvania Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (PA-HART) to ensure that a specially trained team of officers will be available for deployment during future events and provide additional training to other officers statewide.

In explaining his decision to move forward with this ground breaking partnership — which was recently recognized by the National Association for Search and Rescue — Colonel Corey Britcher described his own experience.

“In 2004, Hurricane Ivan tore a path through South Central Pennsylvania; in its aftermath there was significant flooding in Huntingdon County — my assigned patrol area,” Britcher explained.

“Of course being the only agency with boats, EMA directors began calling for assistance. It had been a longstanding thought that we don’t do rescues, searches, etcetera, but when the proverbial crap hit the fan we still got called and still went. I vividly remember evacuating a local hotel when a standard jet boat got pinned to a telephone pole and the rescuers now needed to be rescued,” Britcher said. 

Although it was a civilian boat and not a PFBC craft in peril, it was then that Britcher realized that their basic training — which was good for self-rescue — didn’t always lend itself to rescuing others.

“We got the job done but it could have been done better and safer.”

Training the Team
When he took the helm as Bureau Director, Colonel Britcher made it a priority to work with the other organizations to establish the Swift Water Emergency Response Team (SWERT). The SWERT is currently comprised of 15 officers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Larry Furlong. These officers have received advance training in water rescue, emergency boat operations, and advance line-system rescue as well as qualification necessary to deploy via PAARNG helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft.

Once the SWERT completes the necessary training in ice rescue, scheduled for the coming winter, it will be available for Commonwealth-wide deployment, able to operate independently or as part of the PA-HART as necessary. Many of the team members will also serve in a force protection capacity for other PA-HART operations.

In the meantime, the team members continue to train with air units, test new equipment and work on developing policies and procedures to ensure all the bugs are worked out when they become fully operational.  Team members are also assisting command staff in developing training programs for other officers who are not part of SWERT but may find themselves having no choice but respond while awaiting specialized units. The further plans are, according to Col. Britcher, “to train all future cadets to a higher level for better and quicker response.”

For information on the PA-HART program click here.

For information on the PA Swift Water Rescue Program click here.

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