My Time in the Water: Flood Safety Lessons Learned

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As part of the Swift Water Rescue Team for Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in Virginia, I have been involved in swift water responses for the past decade. Over the course of these responses, I have learned much about the power of water and the damage that floods can create. Floods, caused by nature or man-made, can occur at any time and can affect anyone. Being prepared and heeding warnings and public safety announcements may be the only way to ensure your safety.  Let me discuss a few of the situations I’ve seen as a rescuer and how they tie back to some of the common phrases we hear about flood safety:

“Be Prepared”

Being prepared for a flood, especially in times of increased risk is paramount to remaining safe and secure when the flood occurs. Flood safety plans should include identifying areas of risk around your home and neighborhood, knowing evacuation routes and staying clear of streams, drainage channels and areas that are prone to flash flooding. Be ready, heed the warnings of the National Weather Service and seek out higher ground. If you become trapped in high water and cannot escape, contact 9-1-1 and follow the directions of the public safety officials.

One of the incidents I discuss when I teach water rescue is one in which the gentleman that we rescued was not prepared for the flood, nor did he follow the directions of his rescuers. At shift change on a particularly raining morning, my crew was discussing and preparing for what we eventually knew would come. The tones went off for a car in a flooded roadway and we were on the road. We arrived on the scene to find a gentlemen sitting on top of his car, with water up to the bottom of the windows. We prepared to evacuate him, and when we got to the side of the car, the gentlemen would not leave the car. He was not panicked, or distraught, but had been told by the dispatcher to seek higher ground and the top of the car was as high as he could find! We were there to rescue him and take him to safety, but he was going to listen to the dispatcher. After a lot of discussion and coaxing, we were finally able to ensure the gentleman that the safest place was the higher ground out of the water and not the higher ground of his vehicle.

 Fairfax, Va., Aug. 12, 2010 -- This swift water rescue team helps people stranded in a vehicle due to flooding.

CAPTION: Fairfax, Va., Aug. 12, 2010 -- This swift water rescue team helps people stranded in a vehicle due to flooding.

“Turn Around, Don’t Drown”

Since 2001 when NOAA’s National Weather Service first produced the “Turn Around, Don’t Drown” public information campaign the number of people that have heard the warning cannot be counted. This however, does not mean that the campaign is complete. On nearly all of the swift water rescues that I have run, those that we set out to rescue have not heeded the warning and made the conscious decision to enter the flood waters. When a vehicle is driven into the water, the occupants typically do not realize the peril that they have placed themselves in. People can be swept off their feet in as little as 6 inches of water --most cars float at 12 inches. It only takes minutes in the right conditions for a meandering stream to become a torrent that can sweep vehicles away.

 Fairfax, Va., June 1, 2012 -- Cars attempt to drive through these flooded streets. It is important to remember, turn around, don't drown.

CAPTION: Fairfax, Va., June 1, 2012 -- Cars attempt to drive through these flooded streets. It is important to remember, turn around, don't drown.

One of my most memorable swift water rescues occurred at a location that floods often and is familiar to many because of this. The incident was at the height of a long rain storm that had flooded many locations throughout the county. We had been at the intersection earlier in the storm and had evacuated a couple from their car before it was lifted and taken into the woods. The evacuation occurred quickly and was uneventful. After the incident, the police closed the road with cones, banner tape, and a police cruiser was standing by until a more significant barricade could be put in-place. A couple of hours had gone by since the first evacuation, when we were called back to the location for another vehicle stranded in the water. As we responded, we were all trying to determine if we were going back to check the car that we had evacuated earlier or if this was a new rescue. We arrived on the scene, saw a new car in the water and questioned the police officer as to what had happened. His response was that the car had driven around the cruiser, over the cones, stopped at the water’s edge, and then proceeded to try to cross the water. After evacuating the woman from the car, her response to why she did it was that “the water didn’t look that deep.” Little did she realize that her actions tied up numerous emergency response units, and put our lives in jeopardy as we evacuated her from the water that she should never have driven into.

Tuscan, Ariz., July 23, 2007 -- A woman waits to be rescued by Tucson Fire Department firefighters from the roof of her car that was swept down the Rodeo Wash just south of East Irvington Road and west of South Park Avenue Monday July 23, 2007. Heavy rains hit Tucson in the early afternoon flooding washes and downing power lines across the city.

CAPTION: Tuscan, Ariz., July 23, 2007 -- A woman waits to be rescued by Tucson Fire Department firefighters from the roof of her car that was swept down the Rodeo Wash just south of East Irvington Road and west of South Park Avenue Monday July 23, 2007. Heavy rains hit Tucson in the early afternoon flooding washes and downing power lines across the city.

“Floods can occur anywhere, at any time”

All floods, including flash floods can occur anywhere, at any time. Although it has been related that “anywhere it rains, it can flood,” this does not accurately characterize the flood threat. Floods can be caused by a number of reasons, and not just precipitation. Snow can melt, and mechanical devices such as dams and pipes can break. When this happens, the potential for floods becomes a reality.

The weather on December 23, 2008 was frigidly cold and clear. Another day at the firehouse, my crew was thinking more of building fires due to space heaters, than water rescues. With no precipitation in the forecast there wouldn’t be a flood, and no one would dare go near the river in this cold. But, as has been proven time and again, floods can occur anywhere, any time. My rescue squad was dispatched to assist a neighboring county with a swift water rescue. The cause was a burst water pipe that at the height of the break was spewing 135 million gallons per minute down River Road. The torrent trapped a number of motorists and multiple rescues occurred through the quick actions of the numerous first responders on the scene. By the time the water was turned off and the incident stabilized all those trapped were rescued and we were once again reminded of the power of moving water.

I urge you to learn from my experience.  The three phrases we commonly hear about flooding - “be prepared”, “turn around, don’t drown”, and “floods can occur anywhere, at any time” – they all have valuable meaning behind them that can save lives.  Take the opportunity this week to learn about staying safe from flooding. 

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by Scott E. Schermerhorn do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA does not endorse any non-government organizations, entities, or services.

Last Updated: 
03/21/2013 - 15:51
Posted on Thu, 03/21/2013 - 15:43
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