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NSRI training manager Graeme Harding and his team recently conducted two swiftwater rescue instruction sessions. He shares more about this vital service.

Swiftwater rescue training has long been a part of the NSRI’s training repertoire, but the importance of this skill set was brought home by the devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal. “One of the stations involved in KZN rescue operations pulled over 100 people out of the water in a single day,” says NSRI training manager Graeme Harding, who recently conducted swiftwater training with both inland and coastal stations over the course of two weekends.

Twenty volunteers from coastal NSRI stations in Knysna, St Francis, Port Elizabeth and Jeffreys Bay completed training on the Breede River in the Western Cape, and an additional 12 volunteers from inland stations on the Vaal Dam, Witbank Dam, Hartbeespoort Dam and Gauteng region took part in training on the Vaal River. These stations are all positioned near major rivers where there is a possibility of flooding.

Using innovative techniques and simulated scenarios, the NSRI trains volunteers according to the highest international standards for swiftwater rescue, with a focus on problem-solving with limited resources.

“This form of training generally only comes into play when there is flooding around major inland or coastal rivers,” says Harding. “Unlike sea and inland dam rescues, which occur somewhat regularly, swiftwater rescues are sporadic. There may not be any for years – then, many. Which is why we always need to be ready.”

Over the course of training, Harding and his team of four put the volunteers through their paces. “It’s demanding work, physically and psychologically,” he says.

While the first day is dedicated to theory work – education about river hydraulic dynamics such as, for example, ‘helical flow’ (a corkscrew-like current), laminar flow (fast-moving water travelling in a straight line), pourovers (a narrow hole formed by the water falling over a rock in the river), and more – the following two days are filled with gruelling practical training in winter-cold water.

“The trainees spend many hours in the icy rivers,” says Harding, “to prepare for the real-life eventuality. Hypothermia, fatigue, and dehydration are all real dangers that they need to be aware of. Swiftwater steals heat. When you swim in still water, the water in contact with your skin warms up, but not swiftwater.”

Some of the rescue protocols practised include how to swim in various currents, live-bait swimming (entering the water to secure someone while tethered to shore by a rope attached to a rescue belt), and how to rig z-drag lines to lift someone out of the water.

“The variety of conditions under which volunteers need to be skilled at swiftwater rescue is on par with sea rescue,” says Harding. “Each volunteer demonstrated endurance, focus and, most importantly, competence in carrying out the rescue protocols.”

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