It is mid-August 2016, and Louisiana is inundated with a flood of Biblical proportions. According to press reports, the ceaseless rain has killed at least 13, and forced tens of thousands more from their homes. More than two feet of rain has fallen over the course of five days, and forecasts show more possibly coming, which can lead to even more flash flooding. There is basically nowhere for the water to go.
Press reports have also stated that more than 30,000 people have been rescued in the flooding, surely making it one of the country’s largest water rescue operations in history, though I have not seen the statistics to back that claim up.
As a currently-serving member of a municipal water rescue team myself, by way of my city’s paid-professional fire department, that number sounds incredible. In this author’s head, I envision countless water rescue teams, augmented by many civilians in their own boats, spread across the state of Louisiana, picking people off of submerged cars, the roofs of submerged houses, and possibly even from half-submerged trees.
I imagine those teams working 24 hours per day, rotating out with relief crews, and taking breaks only to refuel boats, use the restroom, and cram food and water down their throats. It is tiring and cold work, but extremely rewarding, and I am sure none of the team members — or assisting civilians, for that matter — would rather be anywhere else.
It is a common refrain heard in the fire service that firefighters are some 4-600 times more likely to die in a water rescue than in a fire — an incredible statistic that may or may not be accurate, but which nevertheless underscores the danger inherent in water rescue operations.
You might think that as a former Navy SEAL, this author joined the water rescue team ready to go, needing little training and preparation to jump right in to water rescue ops. You might also think it was a seamless transition, and that the two occupations are very similar. Well, you would be correct in some ways, but definitely wrong in others.
As a starting point, Navy SEALs are not taught to save people in the water. Yes, we do a little bit of lifeguard training, in order to be able to rescue our swim buddy should he be wounded, but in the grand scheme of things, SEALs are not well-trained in water rescue techniques. It simply is not a skill set that SEALs require in their profession.
What SEALs are well-trained in, however, is comfort in the water. SEALs are taught from day one of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training to find refuge in the water, and to see it as a safe place. If a SEAL platoon is under fire and being overwhelmed by a superior force, and there is a large body of water nearby, two things are probably true. First, the SEAL platoon probably inserted from that body of water, after a prolonged swim or boat ride. Second, the SEALs are likely trying like hell to get back into that water, and put distance between themselves and the superior enemy force.
See this article for an example of just such an operation. SEALs are trained to survive for hours in the water, and to erase any fear they might feel about being in the water without a floating platform, for prolonged periods. It is beat into them over months and years. The water becomes a ‘safe space’ to put it into today’s popular lingo.
A former SEAL, therefore, comes into the water rescue business with a baseline comfort level in the water that is extremely helpful and conducive to conducting water rescue operations. He then must learn all of the other skills that go along with comfort in the water. There are rope systems for use in water rescue operations, swift and flood water boat operations, performing swimming rescues with tether lines attached, operating around all manner of submerged obstacles and obstructions, and many more elements of training to undergo before a former SEAL is ready to be a competent water rescue team member.
When it comes to boat operations, SEALs also bring a baseline of knowledge to water rescue ops. All SEALs are trained in small inflatable boat handling, which serves them well in water rescue operations. Most water rescue teams employ small boats for rescues, rarely ever longer than 15 or 20 feet in length, and most employ either paddles, or small outboard motors with a tiller. This is roughly the same type of boat used by the SEALs, usually the Zodiac-style Combat Rubber Raiding Craft (CRRC).
The main difference comes in the handling of the boat in flood and swift waters. SEALs are more accustomed to boat handling in rivers, open seas and oceans, and through surf zones. The two styles of boat handling are very different, with different considerations effecting the handling of the boat.
While a SEAL would be very comfortable in taking a rubber boat through large surf onto a beach, a typical water rescue team member in the middle of America — far from the nearest surf zone — would not be so comfortable. The opposite is also true. The average SEAL rarely ever finds himself navigating his Zodiac through urban or rural flood waters, dodging trees, floating and submerged debris, and fighting against swift water to get to a victim.
Therefore, while a former SEAL will bring a baseline of knowledge to water rescue operations, he will also have much to learn in order to be an effective member of a water rescue team. That said, the overall comfort levels in operating in a maritime environment, and in handling small boats, are exceptional underlying skill-sets for a water rescue team member.
Responding to natural disasters like the flooding we are seeing in Louisiana is just one more area in which our country’s veterans can contribute to the national well-being. American veterans have much to offer, and should continue to seek ways to put their skills to use following the completion of their service.
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