Steps to a Successful Water Rescue

Learn how to plan and execute a water rescue before you leave for your canoeing trip.

| November 2018

  • Ten basic steps will allow you to deal with any canoeing mishap.
    Photo by Getty Images/fullvalue

Over many years of dragging people and canoes out of rivers and lakes, I have come to realize that canoe rescue is no different from any other kind of emergency. You don’t need to worry about how to deal with a great variety of rescue situations. By following 10 basic steps you will be able to deal with any situation, whether it is a simple capsize in a lake, or a catastrophe on a remote wilderness river. 

The following ten steps outline the sequence of decisions and assessments that must be made during any rescue.   

1. Initial Assessment

The first step, initial assessment, is critical. This is where you first realize that a problem does indeed exist. The sooner this happens the more likely a successful rescue can be made. This is also the time when you must first ensure your own safety and then ensure the safety of the rest of the group. Protecting people at an accident or rescue scene is an on- going procedure, you should try to post at least one person to watch for the well being of the rescuers and the victim at all times. 

On a lake, it can be very easy to lose sight of the victim during the initial assessment, and during the rescue. Your best chance of maintaining sight of the victim is to place a watcher on a point overlooking the water. If the victim disappears, or the watcher loses track of him, it is important to always know the exact position where the victim was last seen. If at all possible the watcher should firmly fix this position in his mind using two or more in-line reference landmarks for the location. Protecting a river rescue scene may require one or two rescuers downstream of the scene with throw ropes, a rescue boat downstream of the site, and possibly a rescuer up stream of the scene to warn oncoming river traffic of the rescue in progress. 



You should take these precautions at all times to ensure the continuing safety of the rescuers. Accidents commonly happen during practice sessions as people are learning new skills, working in unfamiliar surroundings, and experimenting with new techniques. 

2. Problem Assessment 

The next stage is for you to make an assessment of the nature and magnitude of the emergency. This includes determining whether the situation is stable, deteriorating, or fluctuating. At this time you must also make the initial determination of the risk/benefit ratio, and decide if the rescue is to be carried out in Rescue Mode or Recovery Mode. 

3. Resource Evaluation 

Before any actual rescue plans can be initiated you must not only make a considered evaluation of the situation, but must also evaluate the resources which are available. This will include the number of people and their skills, the amount of equipment that is immediately available, and what will be available in the near future. 

4. Developing the Rescue Plan

Only when you have assessed both the problem and the resources, can you develop a plan of action. This is when the overall procedure and an outline of the techniques required to effect the rescue is decided upon. 

The first stage of the plan of action should be one directed immediately towards stabilizing the situation and preventing further deterioration. For example, victims who are unable to help themselves, may require immediate hands-on support to prevent their heads from going under, and the situation from deteriorating. This is one case where the rescuers are at great risk, and even more so if they are not well trained. When you have a friend barely hanging on to a strainer, screaming for help with his head just above the surface, there is a tendency to overlook safety priorities. It can be very difficult trying to remember all the things that have to be done. This is when practice and training will help you to perform a successful rescue. Getting a rescuer to the victim may require paddling, swimming, fording, a tag line, or what ever is necessary to get a set of hands or a rope to the victim so he can be stabilized in place and his head kept above water. 

While this initial stabilization will buy a little more time for you as a rescue leader, you must still continue with the development and execution of a definitive plan to complete the rescue, while doing your best to avoid personal hands-on involvement. 

5. Delegation of Tasks 

Once you have decided on the overall rescue plan, you must break it down into all the individual tasks that need to be carried out. You must then delegate tasks to the individuals or groups most able to successfully complete them. 

6. Monitor/Assess Progress of the Rescue 

Once the tasks are being carried out, and the plan is under way, you must monitor and assess the progress of the entire rescue. You must re-evaluate the risk/benefit ratio and closely monitor the situation to ensure the continued safety of the rescuers. 

7. Re-assessment 

As tasks are attempted or completed, and problems become more obvious, you must re-assess the situation and your rescue plan. Make changes to the plan as necessary and possibly consider an alternative plan in case the first one fails, or in case the situation drastically changes. 

8. Sending for Help 

Calling for outside assistance, if necessary, is an important aspect of the rescue procedure. When and how you call for help depends on the distance to the nearest support services, the difficulty of the terrain, and the extent of your emergency. Calling for help is placed quite far down in the list of steps to rescue only because it is not consistently performed near the beginning of every rescue. There is no advantage in sending for help before you have all the information which will be required by a rescue agency. 



When you send for help, it is important to specify as clearly as possible where you are located, what the problem is, the extent of injuries, what specific support you require, and your plans for completing the rescue. This information should include your plans for evacuating the victim to another location, or whether you plan to establish a camp and wait for further support. 

9. First Aid 

Whatever first aid is necessary must be administered to the patient as soon as possible. First aid might begin as soon as you can lay hands on the patient, and may continue until the patient has been evacuated to a hospital. 

10. Evacuation

No rescue is complete until the victim is evacuated to an appropriate medical facility. This may be the longest and most difficult part of any rescue operation. The decisions you make about evacuation will depend on the condition of the patient, the resources of your group, and the distance to the nearest support facilities. You must carry out all of these steps for a successful rescue, whether it is a simple capsize on a lake, or a complex river entrapment. Hopefully, the first five steps should be completed within the first 30 seconds to one minute after the accident happens. This is the time when the critical decisions must be made; when you must gather enough information to assess the risk/benefit ratio and decide what rescue techniques will need to be implemented.

More from Canoeing Safety and Rescue:

Canoeing Safety Equipment

Canoeing Physical Hazards

Reprinted with permission from Canoeing Safety and Rescue by Doug McKown and published by Rocky Mountain Books, 2005






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