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by the NFCC

Control measure

Communication strategy: Water rescue and flooding

Control measure knowledge

Using common terminology when conducting briefings and operating near water is vital to ensure messages are understood.

When working near, on or in flowing water personnel are often facing the opposite direction to spotters and may be working on different banks. Upstream is the area closer to the source of the flow and downstream the direction of flow of the water. To avoid confusion downstream is always considered to be forward, river right is the right hand side when facing downstream and river left the left hand side.

Communication with responders committed to the water can be difficult. The noise of moving water and the distance between personnel may make verbal communication between personnel difficult. Although waterproof communication equipment is available, it is often not appropriate for swimmers committed to the water; due to the effects of water, personal protective equipment (PPE) and levels of exertion required. The following list of standard hand signals will assist communication for emergency responders when working near, on or in water.

Hand signal Meaning
One hand flat on head OK
One arm raised above head Distress
Pointing with one arm outstretched above horizontal. May be preceded by circling hand vertically in air Move in that direction
Pointing with one arm outstretched below horizontal Attention to or hazard in water
Both arms crossed in front of chest Need medical help or bring medical kit
One arm outstretched in front of chest showing palms Stop
When in boat – arm outstretched to one side Move in that direction
When in boat – both arms raised above head Stop
When in boat – one arm outstretched at side of body bent upwards at 90° Holding position

Whistle signals are also used to aid communication where line of sight is difficult to achieve:

  • One blast - Stop or attention towards signaller
  • Two blasts - Attention to upstream or move upstream
  • Three blasts - Attention to downstream or move downstream
  • Three blasts repeated - Emergency

The specific whistle and hand signals listed may not be appropriate for the tasks or environment during an incident. Any variations identified or used should be established with all responders from all agencies.

Strategic actions

Fire and rescue services should:
  • Provide appropriate equipment for communication in the water environment

Tactical actions

Incident commanders should:
  • Consider establishing appropriate methods of communication for the water environment

  • Brief responders on signals used to communicate prior to committing to water