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Emergency Crews Gear Up for Daring Flood Channel Rescues : Preparedness: City-county task force has new equipment, policies and training to save people swept away in floodwaters.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nancy Rigg’s painful memory of her fiance’s drowning in the fast-moving currents of the Los Angeles River nearly 13 years ago came rushing back last February when she saw television images of the limp body of 15-year-old Adam Paul Bischoff being pulled from the cold river waters.

But after years of fighting for changes in the way local agencies respond to swift-water emergencies, Rigg said she is now “totally, absolutely encouraged” by new programs adopted by the city and county in response to Bischoff’s death.

Historically, about six drownings occur each year in the county’s 470 miles of flood control channels. Though officials say they cannot eliminate the possibility of another such drowning, they predict that the multifaceted emergency response program now nearly complete will make a difference.

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“There are conditions out there that are so extreme, we’re not going to rescue everyone,” said Assistant City Fire Chief Tony Ennis.

“But given Adam Paul Bischoff as a model, I think now we would be able to make a rescue under the conditions he was in,” said Ennis, who is chairman of the River Rescue Task Force.

Under the auspices of the task force and a similar group formed by the county, Los Angeles city and county Fire and Police departments, lifeguards, the Department of Public Works and other agencies have been training personnel in swift-water rescues. With combined budgets of about $450,000, they have standardized rescue procedures, purchased new equipment and established routines for communicating during emergencies.

One element of the new multi-agency effort was triggered during the early December rains, when six lifeguards equipped with inflatable rescue boats were dispatched to the Sepulveda Basin to assist anyone who might be trapped in rising floodwaters or fall into upstream channels.

During last week’s rains, the county Fire Department had teams of rescue specialists stand ready near several drainage and flood control areas, and the roads leading into the Sepulveda Basin were closed by Los Angeles police as a precaution. Under the new emergency plan, those roads will be closed when the water behind the dam reaches 680 feet above sea level, eight feet below the level at which the water would flood city streets.

Previously, the policy had been for the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam, to notify city officials when the water level was only two inches below flood level. In February, 48 motorists had to be rescued when they were caught in the basin by floodwater.

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Another key part of the new plan, a program to educate schoolchildren about the dangers of flood channels, is to be launched this month with the distribution of videos, written materials and posters to Los Angeles schools.

The video, entitled “No Way Out,” was produced by Rigg, 42, a free-lance writer and film producer who lives in Los Angeles. “When someone you love dies tragically, the only thing you can do is try to prevent someone else from dying tragically,” Rigg said. “There is no other solace.”

In 1980, Rigg’s fiance, Earl Higgins, a 29-year-old writer and producer, drowned while trying to save an 11-year-old boy from the river. The boy lived, but Higgins’ body was not recovered until nine months later.

For years after Higgins’ death, Rigg fought for new emergency response procedures but said she was ignored by local officials. The lack of a plan was painfully obvious last Feb. 12 as under-equipped, untrained would-be rescuers tried in vain to save Bischoff.

The Woodland Hills teen-ager slipped into the swollen Los Angeles River during a heavy rainstorm and was swept nearly 10 miles, from Woodland Hills to Encino, as rescue crews tried in vain to save him.

The 15-minute video features harrowing scenes of victims being pounded in the surging river waters while rescuers--some of whom fall into the water themselves--try desperately to catch them with ropes. Various fire, police and lifeguard officials issue stern warnings about the dangers of flood channels.

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Also appearing in the video is Adam Bischoff’s 19-year-old sister, Carrie, in an emotional plea to avoid storm runoff areas.

David Bischoff, Adam’s father, said his family’s involvement in the video and other efforts to try to educate the public have been painful, but “if that can prevent some other person suffering what we suffered, it’s worth it.”

Another key aspect of the swift-water program is that various agencies are now cooperating to standardize rescue techniques and stay in close communication during critical periods.

“The biggest difference is each department was kind of doing its own thing,” said county Fire Chief William Zeason. “There wasn’t a real focus.”

The training programs are to be completed in February, when all of the nearly 5,000 city and county firefighters will have received instruction on river characteristics, how to use equipment such as ropes, pulleys and flotation devices and the analysis of rescue sites.

Some of the firefighters and all of the county’s 120 lifeguards also will be trained to go in the water and pull victims out, if necessary. Helicopter personnel are receiving additional training in techniques for lowering a rescuer on a line behind the victim and leaving enough slack in the line to give the rescuer room to maneuver.

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The training has been so rigorous, said Bill Masten, a county fire captain and coordinator of the county’s Swift Water Rescue Committee, that after a drill at Magic Mountain’s Roaring Rapids ride, “we couldn’t even tie our shoes because our hands were so cold and we were drained.”

Masten said that training under realistic conditions is necessary because flood channel rescues are complicated by sloped, concrete banks, chemicals and debris in the water and currents of 30 m.p.h. or more. And unlike natural rivers that have eddies and calm spots, flood channel waters flow just as rapidly at the edges as in the middle.

“Of all the rescues we go on, putting a rescuer in the flood channel to rescue a victim has got to be the most hazardous thing we do,” Masten said.

Though encouraged by the new program, city and county budget problems leave some worried that efforts might still fall short of what is needed. Recently, a county sheriff’s squad that rescues people from flood channels and other dangerous situations was cut to less than half its former size because of a budget shortfall.

Nonetheless, Rigg said she is heartened by what she sees as a new commitment to improving emergency preparedness. “It’s a sad dream,” she said, “but a dream come true.”

Emergency Response Program

City and county firefighters, police and other agencies have established communications procedures for use during periods of heavy rain.

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By February, all of the 5,000 city and county firefighters and lifeguards will have completed swift-water rescue training.

An education program that includes a video, written materials and posters will be launched in Los Angeles schools this month.

Rescue teams have been equipped with new gear, including inflatable boats, flotation devices, life vests and helmets.

A group of engineers is studying ideas for other equipment, such as mechanical nets.

About two dozen rescue points have been identified along the county’s 470 miles of flood channels.

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