Help can sometimes be more of a hindrance in flood rescues
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Help can sometimes be more of a hindrance in flood rescues

A motorist who was stranded in his car after driving into dangerous flood waters resisted being rescued for six hours, causing a "standoff" and making a helicopter wait nearby for 90 minutes.

Another passenger decided mid-rescue to return to the car to get a handbag, found researchers who interviewed experts who had rescued people who had driven into floodwaters.

There are about 13 flood-related drownings in Australia every year.

There are about 13 flood-related drownings in Australia every year.Credit:Police Media

It wasn't only the public who made rescues difficult and put lives at risk, according to a new paper by Royal Life Saving Society Australia with Griffith University.

Experienced flood rescue operators said untrained emergency services officers often made the situation worse.

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Firefighters, for example, would often "rock up ... and they're wearing their firefighting jacket, which is extremely heavy... and they go walking straight into the floodwater, and you know, they're basically wearing a weight vest,"  said one expert interviewed by researchers.

Untrained personnel also often jumped into dangerous floodwaters. "What causes me concern ... is I'm there to rescue the person out of the car but I'm also there to rescue the police officer and the firefighters because they will want to jump in the water and rescue that person," he said.

"Quite often by the time you get there, there's three people in flood water because people ... have attempted to go and rescue and now they're in trouble," he said.

Of the 282 unintentional fatal drownings that occur each year, about 13 are flood-related, said the newly published research paper in the Health Promotion Journal of Australia.

Despite campaigns such as Turn Around Don't Drown,  drownings from driving into floodwaters were the leading cause of death during floods.

Global warning is causing more flash-flooding, Todd Lane, deputy director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, told Fairfax this week.

Highly decorated flood rescue expert Shannon Crofton, a senior firefighter with Fire and Rescue NSW,  said Australians often resisted rescue because they thought they knew how to handle themselves in water.

"As Australians, we're good swimmers, and beachy people, but sometimes that can get us into trouble," he said.

Shannon Crofton, NSW Fire and Rescue flood rescue expert at Hurstville station.

Shannon Crofton, NSW Fire and Rescue flood rescue expert at Hurstville station.Credit:Louise Kennerley

Flood waters were very different from the surf, though. "It is relentless, whereas with surf  you can have a lull."

Mr Crofton is aiming to change Australian attitudes. He is the first non-American to receive the Higgins and Langley Awards for swiftwater and flood rescue.

With a group of Australian firefighters, Mr Crofton developed a new rescue method, including a way to turn a fire hose, usually used to carry water, into a flotation device that can be floated out to the people in trouble.

Mr Crofton trains rescuers to understand water hydrology. The weight of an adult can hold a vehicle in place, so emergency personnel first rescue lighter passengers, such as children, out of a stranded vehicle first.

"A rescuer needs to evaluate the way persons are removed to ensure that the vehicle does not float away when one person is removed and another remaining in the vehicle," he said.

They've also taught firefighters to wear wetsuits into the water and not heavy firefighting jackets. They now rescue pets, too, to prevent people from returning later to a vehicle.

The interviews found a wide variation in advice given to stranded motorists who call 000, the emergency number.

The researchers, including Jacob Keech from Griffith University and Amy Peden from Royal Life Saving Society Australia, recommended:

  • Clearer guidelines for more emergency personnel,
  • A standard operating procedure for calls to 000,
  • More campaigns to remind the public that driving into floodwater puts children and the elderly at increased risk.

They also urged the public to stay out of floodwaters and away from rescue operations. In one case, spectators were driving around in the floodwater when experts were trying to extract a dead man from a vehicle.

Julie Power is a senior journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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