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Swift Water Rescue Fundamentals

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

This may not be what you are expecting. You may be expecting a list of skills or practices that are considered bread and butter for every Swift Water Rescue course. You may be expecting a list of things to avoid in your practices. However I will be highlighting an approach to Swift Water Rescue that is is more of a practice of humbleness and presence to the state of the situations as they are.

In a way this post is more of a commentary of heuristics.

"Heuristics are rules-of-thumb that can be applied to guide decision-making based on a more limited subset of the available information. Because they rely on less information, heuristics are assumed to facilitate faster decision-making than strategies that require more information"

Say what?

"Heuristics is the study of human behavior and the factors that act on our psyche leading to decision making outside of best practices"

OK that's better.

In the study of human behavior that are relevant to operations in risk management we look at things called "heuristic traps". These consist of many things but to label a few of them we can lay them out in some simple ideas.

  • Familiarity: working within a group or location or in a setting that is comfortable. Becoming less analytical and relying on previous events to guide decisions.

  • Authority: while a group operates there is comfort in relying on someone else to make the decisions. This may be compounded when a new highly revered member joins the group a for the first time.

  • Commitment Consistency: Making goals can cloud the objectives of a group vision, not to mention the need to maintain benchmarks. The stress of potential failure can interfere with proper decision making.

  • Linking Conformity: ‘If someone I like is doing it then it’s what I should do to be accepted.’ For example, our leader reckons the river crossing looks OK, and I respect him, even though I think the crossing could be too dangerous for our party. Being scared of speaking out and causing conflict.

  • Scarcity and Competition: limited resource ‘If something is scarce then I should desire it.’ For example, this is my only holiday this year and I want to complete the camping trip even though the weather doesn’t look great.

These five points are very common and there are many examples I can draw upon in my own experiences. Notably, this happens for me while at work more than while paddling or skiing with friends. I'm not sure why but I think its more pronounced because I feel more exposed to extreme outcomes. I may have this backwards. At any rate It could be that I am less aware when recreating and it would confirm I have fallen into a trap while recreating and am more consistent about avoiding traps at work....???

So this post is becoming more about human factors than Swift Water Rescue. But of course they go hand in hand. So bringing human factors in to your consideration in Swift Water Rescue, you will inevitably be taking a step in the right direction. More over, if you bring human factors consideration into your daily river running operations, then we can avoid the occurrence of more complex swift water rescue scenarios.

The first fundamental for all of us is to take a course. You can learn from friends but is your friend going to stay on task over three days? Will they maintain the pressure to help the group push their boundaries?

Second, apply the rules that you learn in your course consistently. Understand how the heuristic traps can take you outside of your standard operating procedures.

Third, maintain your skills. You need to be confident in your ability to maneuver when things are going well, when your challenged and when your moving past your boundaries. Something that can save you when your challenged and stressed is to fall back on your training. I have found this especially helpful in paddling, climbing, skiing, biking etc. when stressed or pumped out I focus on technique so I can maintain the most energy efficient moves or maneuvers to complete the challenge.

Lastly, retrain. Your rescue/risk assessment and mitigation skills are easily eroded by time. If your not keen enough to practice your skills in your own time , consider retraining in a course or within your company/group.

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