A Rescue Arrested – How It Happened and What We Can Learn
Although outfitters know how to deal with anything from a routine swims to a life-threatening pins, few are prepared to work with Emergency Responders.
When police, fire, and rescue personnel arrive, the dynamics of a situation change. Search and rescue (SAR) professionals are the “designated state authority”. They can take over an accident scene and arrest anyone who disobeys their lawful orders. And as last summer’s events showed, this can cause real problems!
Clear Creek, which runs along on I-70 and US 6 in Colorado’s Front Range, has sections ranging in difficulty from Class II to V. Outfitters have operated on the river for a number of years. There are real risks here: six paddlers have died here in the last 20 years, along with a number of swimmers and fishermen. Last summer two raft guides were arrested while trying to rescue one of their guests. The story has useful lessons for the outfitting community.
It was a very high water day on June 10th when an Arkansas Valley Adventures raft missed an eddy at the end of their beginner trip and floated into the advanced section just downstream.
They flipped, tossing everyone in the water. The adults got to shore but a 13 year-old little girl washed downstream through several miles of serious Class IV-V rapids.
Ryan Snodgrass is a ten year veteran guide and a Class V kayaker who is certified in swiftwater rescue and first aid. He works as trip leader, guide trainer, and safety kayaker for the company. He’d just finished a trip on the intermediate section when his manager told him what happened. Grabbing his gear, he and several other guides headed down river. Just below a tunnel they stopped and listened. They heard a girl screaming. They ran to the guard rail and spotted the girl on the far shore. Her back was against a cliff, so she couldn’t move up or downstream.
Someone, probably a passing motorist, saw what happened and dialed 911. The Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Dive Rescue Team responded. Many rescue squads only deal with fast moving water once every 4-6 years and their training is spotty at best. This team is different. Set up in 1984 and trained by Dive Rescue Specialists and Rescue III. they are in the river year-round managing auto wrecks and searching for missing persons as well as responding to the usual swimming and boating accidents. They have a good reputation in Colorado and are often called on to assist with searches and recoveries elsewhere.
So two strong teams, highly trained and confident, converged on the scene.
Both felt a responsibility to perform the rescue. Adrenaline was flowing and everyone was keyed up. It’s not easy for two groups that don’t know each other to team up for a rescue under ideal conditions. This meeting was more like a collision. Several Dive Team members wearing civilian clothes shouted at the guides not to intervene. This would later escalate to shouting, cursing, name-calling, and shoving on both sides. But the guides were intent on doing their job, and paid them no mind.
Several guides decided to reach the girl so they could check her for injuries and offer support. They went downstream to a calm stretch and set up safety so Mr. Snodgrass could swim across the river. He described the swim as “a simple jump from a rock at the bank and a swim ferry into a well defined eddy.” He moved quickly upstream and made contact. Finding her unhurt he began scouting for a place to catch a throwbag to pendulum her over to the near shore. That’s when a uniformed rescuer shouted that he was in charge and ordered Mr. Snodgrass not to move the girl. A CCDT rescue swimmer, after several attempts, made it across the river. (NB: most rescue squads don’t even have a rescue swimmer) The guide stepped back as the swimmer checked the young lady over and the rest of his team set up a system to bring a boat over and back. It took about 45 minutes to get the system up and the girl across. Mr. Snodgrass was then ordered to cross the river using the same system. When he reached the near shore, he was arrested, handcuffed, and taken to jail. A second guide, Justin Lariscy, was also arrested. They were both charged with “Obstructing a Rescue” and “Obstructing a Government Operation”.
Why such a serious conflict between two competent groups?
It starts with a real difference in training and philosophy between whitewater paddlers and emergency responders. Swiftwater rescues are just one type of emergency that first responders train for. River guides and whitewater paddlers, by contrast, are totally focused on the river. Many paddle over 100 days per year; rescuing swimmers, unpinning boats, and picking off stranded paddlers is all in a day’s work. Their different backgrounds result in very different rescue styles. Guides and paddlers have limited resources and are presented with evolving situations that demand immediate action. They respond individually or in small ad hoc groups with fast-moving, in water techniques that are considered reckless, even dangerous, by SAR professionals. First responders bring lots of gear and people but take more time to get to the scene. Most situations they encounter are stable, though unresolved. They are trained are to work as a team and have a well-defined chain of command. They’ve developed strategies to handle these low-urgency, high-risk situations in the safest possible manner. Although this approach is seen as slow moving and awkward by whitewater paddlers, first responders would counter that rescuing members of the general public, rather than other paddlers, demands extra caution.
Furthermore, the groups each had unflattering stereotypes about the other.
Emergency responders as well trained as the Clear Creek Dive Team are rare, and paddlers are more familiar with many bungled rescues made by other “professional” SAR units. For most first responders, emergencies requiring moving water skills are quite unusual, and training resources are therefore limited. Even a rescuer who has six days of swiftwater rescue training and takes four days of practice per year has less time on the river than the average intermediate kayaker or rookie raft guide. So naturally they work differently than true whitewater experts.
Rescue squads also deal with the most inexperienced and irresponsible whitewater paddlers. They do body searches and help clueless river runners stranded on islands or mid-stream boulders. Not surprisingly, they think of paddlers as “stupid, beer-drinking, dope-smoking hippies” who don’t wear PFD’s or cold weather gear, take stupid risks, and don’t take care of themselves. Trained whitewater paddlers and guides, by contrast, handle their own mishaps and seldom call for outside help.
Cell phone usage has created additional challenges. Nowadays 911 operators often receive calls from passers by in automobiles. On roadside rivers these calls often involve problems that experienced river runners can manage themselves. False alarms occur regularly. On one roadside stretch of the Potomac near Harper’s Ferry, WV. 911 operators hear not only from drivers, but also from livery customers who loose their boats or tubes and call for help. One local outfitter told me that he often encounters rescue squads when picking up stranded customers or recovering pinned boats. Sometimes there are arguments about “who is in charge” and a simple situation becomes more complicated. He described one incident where two paddlers sunbathing on a midstream rock were reported as “stranded”. This set in motion a huge response involving two fire companies, a major bridge closure, and a helicopter! But It’s pretty difficult for 911 operators to know what’s going on and so they probably over-react in the interest of safety. The AVA guides who were searching Clear Creek never called for outside help, and the Clear Creek Dive Team was not told that there was a team of skilled professional guides on the scene.
This is not the first time that rescuers have tried to help people who don’t want or need assistance.
It’s often an issue in the mountains when relatives of overdue climbers notify authorities. For skilled climbers, waiting out a bad storm for several days is not only possible, its prudent. Some years ago a young man named Scott Mason got lost in Mount Washington’s Great Gulf in winter. Although he was several days overdue, he was tough and self reliant. He was walking out on his own when the “rescuers” found him. Later he got a $10,000 bill from the state that was only withdrawn after an extended legal and political fight. You can decline help, politely but firmly, and should do so when it’s appropriate. The rafting company, if given the opportunity, would have probably done this.
Emergency responders are rightfully wary of accepting help from bystanders.
Imagine, as the incident commander of a rescue team, being approached by someone who says he’s a whitewater paddler trained in swiftwater rescue who wants to help. You really don’t really know if that person is who he says he is, but you do know that if someone gets hurt you, your crew, and the government can be sued for damages. One professional put it bluntly, “The world is full of idiots and wanna-bees and we don’t have time to weed out the idiots and pick the good guys. We go with people we know.” They are required to secure the scene, and this means keeping people who aren’t part of the team away from the action.
In swiftwater rescue classes I discuss what paddlers should do if they encounter another group with a rescue in progress.
Put simply, you have to work with the people who are already there. Maybe those folks will accept your input. If not, you can help out on their terms or move on. Sometimes a hot-shot boater will jumps into a rescue without talking to those involved. I still remember a fellow who came upon a pinned open canoe I was trying to release. He barged in, and a few minutes later had broken the boat in half, insulted the boat owner, and left us with a mess. Months later he still felt he had performed a useful service. Only the actual risk of death or serious injury justifies starting an argument or interfering with a rescue in progress. Even then, you should think twice!
If you encounter a rescue squad working on a river rescue and think you can help, ask to speak to the incident commander.
Make your case calmly and respectfully. You may still get turned down; the IC is under a lot of pressure and may be pretty abrupt with you. Rescue squads vary in how open they are to outside help; some have written polices against it, other leave it to the incident commander’s discretion. Remember that even a rescue that you don’t think is ideal is often good enough. Be patient. There’s no question that either the Clear Creek Dive rescue team or the guides could have rescued the young girl safely. If a rescue squad comes across an incident that you’re working, send someone who can serve as trip leader up to talk. Identify yourself as the leader, explain what’s happening, and ask for whatever help you need. In one incident, Adirondack Park Rangers were called to the scene of a fatality where the victim’s group was working hard to recover her body. They set up their system, then approached the paddlers, and asked if they could attempt the recovery. They were in fact successful, and their sensitivity brought them a great deal of respect from the whitewater community.
Over the years I’ve found many examples of strong cooperation between outfitters and first responders.
Building this relationship takes time. Outfitters who have a solid relationship with EMS always worked on it before the emergency. Some paddlers and guides join rescue squads and some outfitters schedule joint training to develop a formal or informal relationship with local teams. In places like the Nantahala and New Rivers rescue squads typically depend on outfitters to manage the in-water portion of the rescue. Once the victim is on shore they take over. Then the greatest strengths of EMS professionals – advanced medical care and fast transportation – come into play.
This story had a reasonably happy ending.
Duke Bradford, owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures, stood firmly behind his guides. The guides’ arrest received wide publicity throughout the region and drew hundreds of comments in chat rooms. The Sheriff received a torrent of critical emails and phone calls. Although the public was clearly sympathetic to the guides, cooler heads recognized that the Dive Team had a point, too. There was plenty of blame to go around. Eventually the sheriff, district attorney, and guides had a sit-down. The guides wrote a letter of apology and the charges were dropped. We hope that this will be the beginning of real cooperation, or at least mutual respect, between the outfitter and the county dive team.