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As El Niño approaches, first responders undergo swift-water rescue training

Montrose Search-and-Rescue Team

Members of the Montrose Search and Rescue Team participated in swift-water rescue training to prepare for forecasted El Niño storms.

(Courtesy of Mike Leum)

Dozens of first responders, including 10 members from the Montrose Search-and-Rescue Team, participated in swift-water-rescue training earlier this month in preparation for upcoming El Niño storms that are forecast to hit this winter.

Training will continue this weekend for 20 members from the eight volunteer organizations countywide — including three members from Montrose — seeking to become certified swift-water-rescue technicians.

The group will practice a number of rescue techniques that involve jumping in the water to save someone stuck in a swollen stream or flood, according to Mike Leum, assistant director for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s reserve forces bureau, who oversees the county’s eight volunteer rescue teams.

Techniques that involve getting in the water are among the more dangerous rescue methods because the victim may be moving through the water at 15 mph amid mud and debris, and there may be overhead wires and tunnels.


“It’s a continually changing environment — you have to be able to adapt,” Leum said. “Sometimes that might mean jumping in the water.”

In 1969, a Montrose team member died trying to save people from a flood in the Tujunga Canyon, which was the first and only fatality experienced by the county’s volunteer rescue teams, Leum said.

“So, we take swift-water-rescue training very seriously,” he said. “With the forecasted El Niño, we figured this would be a good time to have a large-scale training.”

During a training session earlier this month that involved land-based rescue methods, John Camphouse, reserve captain for the Montrose team, put on a wetsuit, helmet and flotation device before jumping in the water, where he played a victim.


“It reinforces how powerful the water is — and you, as a rescuer, really don’t want to get in the water,” Camphouse said. “It’s a last resort because the power of the water is so great.”

Rescuers urged residents to stay safe during upcoming storms by avoiding swollen streams or rivers.

“We try and tell people, ‘Turn around, don’t drown,’” Leum said. “It only takes 6 inches of water to create over 400 pounds of force that will knock you off your feet.”


Alene Tchekmedyian,

Twitter: @atcheck