With the monsoon season in full swing in southern Arizona, there’s always the possibility that someone will try to cross a flooded wash in a vehicle and be swept away or fall into a flooded wash from the bank side.
When such instances occur in Northwest Tucson, it’s the swift water rescue team at either Northwest Fire/Rescue District or Golder Ranch Fire District that gets the call to rescue the trapped victims.
Northwest Fire District operates its swift water rescue out of Station 34 at Wade and Silverbell roads under the umbrella of a Technical Rescue unit.
“This station is primarily focused on technical rescue – high angle, swift water, confined space, trench and building collapse,” said Captain Leigh Foss. “We also will pull responders from our Station 33 at Ina and Shannon roads.”
Foss said Northwest Fire has outfitted a rescue squad vehicle with the specialized equipment needed to handle the various types of technical rescue. The vehicle can carry six firefighters and is set up to handle up to a 72-hour deployment.
“Most of what we see is low angle rescue and swift water rescue – the stranded hikers and the stranded motorists,” Foss pointed out.
While Arizona has what’s commonly called a Stupid Motorist Law (section 28-910 of the Arizona Revised Statutes) that allows local governments to prosecute people who knowingly enter a street, highway or wash that is barricaded due to temporary flooding and even fine them for the cost of their rescue, nonetheless, people drive through flooded washes every monsoon season.
Will Seeley, a captain and public information officer for Golder Ranch Fire District, said the Golder Ranch technical rescue team is part of Special Operations that is housed in Station 370 on Golder Ranch Road.
“Each day we have six personnel on duty trained in technical rescue who can handle situations like rope rescue and swift water rescue,” Seeley said. “Generally our response to a swift water incident is an engine company, an ambulance and our equipment truck with our swift water gear.”
While each rescue presents its own unique circumstances, Seeley said locating the victim and getting a flotation device to the victim as quickly as possible are the key starting points.
“We make sure we have personnel upstream so we are aware of any change in conditions, like water level or debris coming down the wash,” Seeley noted, “and personnel downstream with throw ropes and a straining system to catch anyone who goes into the water.”
Depending on the water level, Seeley said rescuers might try to reach a victim using an 8-foot pike pole or a throw rope. Failing that, a team of rescuers might maneuver into the wash in either a straight line or a V-formation to bring the victim back to solid ground.
Seeley said a strong swimmer who is secured to a rescue rope also has been used to bring a victim to safety, as have aerial ladders and even helicopters.
Seeley noted that in a typical year, Golder Ranch performs between one and several swift water rescues.
Foss said that Northwest Fire typically responds to a dozen swift water rescues a year. Besides covering its own fire district, the Northwest Fire technical rescue unit responds on mutual aid to Avra Valley and Picture Rocks fire districts for swift water rescues.
“On the scene of a swift water rescue call, we immediately put on our protective equipment and life jackets because when we’re near the water we run the risk of entering it as well,” Foss noted. “We try to make a rescue from solid ground or an aerial ladder if we can reach them with that. We’ll use throw bags or floating ropes, and even have a Zodiac-type inflatable boat we can use.”
Foss said between one and four pieces of fire apparatus respond to swift water rescue calls, particularly because of the manpower needed.
“Typically one or two people are rescued on a swift water rescue call, but a lot of personnel are needed to make that rescue,” Foss pointed out. “We have personnel upstream to see what’s coming down toward us, people downstream in case someone slips by us, the technical rescue team where the victim is located, and a rapid intervention team (RIT) in place on the scene as backup to the swift water rescue team.”
Foss noted that the average person is not familiar with the power of flowing water.
“Even ankle-deep water can push a person around,” she observes. “And any time our team responds to a call, there are risks for our firefighters too.”
But driving around barriers and getting stranded in a wash has another unintended effect, Foss added.
“When we have to deploy resources for an incident where the person put themself in trouble, we are drawing those resources away from other emergency calls,” she said. “Those kinds of calls should be preventable because of the Stupid Motorist Law.”
Monsoon Safety Tips
• Don’t cross a flooded road, street or wash, even if there are no barricades.
• Don’t drive or walk around barricades, even if there is no water running in the wash or road. Rainstorms miles away can quickly raise the water level in washes and cause flash flooding conditions.
• Watch and obey warning signs. Many washes in Arizona have a “Do Not Enter When Flooded” sign.
• If you or someone else is trapped in water, call 9-1-1 immediately.
• If possible, climb onto the roof of your vehicle and wait to be rescued.