Reality Training: Responders watch as bystander makes water rescue

A smartphone video captures a 71-year-old man enter a river to assist a man collapsed on a rock and partially submerged


Incident Date: July 2015

Department: Reno police, REMSA, and Reno Fire Department

What happened: A smartphone video shows a man, apparently in distress and possibly intoxicated, on a rock in the middle of a small river. Three emergency responders are standing on the shore when a bystander shouts, "You guys should be the ones going down to help. Really, you're going to let this guy go save him?"

As the responders continue to watch from the shoreline and the bridge over the river a 71-year-old man wades into the river and helps the man in distress to shore. Police, fire and EMS responders followed their local protocol to wait for the water rescue team to make entry and extricate the man in distress.

Discussion points: hands-off patient assessment and water rescue hazards

As you watch the video, below, discuss these questions with your partner, company or squad.

  1. How can you assess the medical condition of the patient from a far and based on the video were there immediate life threats to the man on the rock?
  2. What are the risks associated with water rescue and how are those risks mitigated?
  3. As a responder, do have an obligation to inform bystanders of the go or no-go decision and why you are making that decision?
  4. Should responders attempt to restrain other bystanders from a rescue attempt?
  5. What are potential diagnoses for the patient and a treatment plan?

Water rescue

Drowning, worldwide, is the third leading cause of death and some of those deaths are secondary to a trained responder or untrained layperson making a rescue attempt. The unseen hazards of cold water temperature, rocks and other submerged objects, waves and currents make water rescue especially dangerous.

A rescue squad member died in the line of duty from injuries sustained when the rescue boat she was in capsized in an Alabama river during a search for a kayaker. Your recognition of the risks involved in water rescue is critical to your ability to carry out a life-saving rescue without compromising your own life.

Finally, civilians have high, often realistic expectations, for responders to act rapidly when someone is injured or in distress. A screaming bystander should not affect rescuer urgency or behavior to make a patient rescue, extrication or extraction. 

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