High-Water Rescue Vehicles

Large-scale evacuations in both metropolitan and rural areas during a major flood event can prove to be more than difficult. Evacuating a subdivision is one thing but, imagine evacuating an entire city of more than a million. The challenges can quickly overwhelm local first responders. Standard fire apparatus can prove to be less than adequate for operations in high water (depths of more than 12 to 18 inches). Components like air intakes and electrical control systems do not function well or at all when submerged. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, the Houston (TX) Fire Department, as well as surrounding departments, had many apparatus become submerged and inoperable while trying to respond to and from calls for trapped victims. Roads turn into rivers, and underpasses can be completely submerged, making travel impossible for emergency vehicles. Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) member companies have introduced high-water rescue vehicles (HWRVs) that help improve victim evacuations during flooding.


The typical scenario is this: a large flood event (hurricane, large rain event, spring snow melt) occurs and quickly overwhelms local first responders. Cities and counties reach out to the state for assistance. The state, in turn, reaches out to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the military for additional resources. Assistance can come in the form of urban search and rescue (USAR) teams, specialty water rescue teams, medical strike teams, military units, coast guard units, helicopter units, etc. USAR and water rescue teams frequently work closely with military units and take advantage of their high-profile vehicles (HPVs). HPVs allow rescuers to evacuate civilians from areas that are partially underwater, or about to be underwater. These vehicles have large tires, high ground clearance, and intake and electrical systems that are more robust than standard vehicles.

While military HPVs generally work well, they do have some limitations. They are designed to carry highly agile troops who can easily negotiate climbing into the back of a truck that is four to five feet off the ground or higher. The high deck height can prove extremely difficult to load with nonambulatory patients from a nursing home or hospital. In addition, many of these vehicles are armored or up-armored. They can pose a serious liability if they get trapped in high water. The armored cabs have fixed, nonopening windows and very heavy doors with special locking mechanisms that do not allow them to be opened easily. These doors can weigh in excess of 200 pounds. If stalled out in high water, it can be extremely difficult for the cab occupants to escape.


Some FAMA member companies have produced specialty HWRVs designed and engineered specifically for high-water evacuation operations. These apparatus are built with both safety and ergonomics in mind. They start with a four-wheel-drive commercial or military chassis that is modified to perform in high water and make access to the rear victim transport area accessible to all types of evacuees. Modifications to the chassis can include larger tires, suspension modification, winches, and skid plates. Relocation of driveline and fuel system vent tubes as well as modifications to the electrical system are also included. Emergency and scene lighting are installed. Bodies are designed for ease of access, victim protection, and transport. Access to the body generally comes in the form of large hydraulic lift gates, as well as specialized ladders and access steps. The lift gates allow quick, safe loading and unloading of wheelchair or bedridden victims while dramatically reducing the risk to rescuers.

A typical custom-built HWRV will have a body that is designed for transporting personnel. Bench seats are installed down the length of both sides of the body. Seat belts are installed for safety. The seating may be removable or fold down to allow the body to be converted into a flatbed for other uses. Special tie-downs can be installed down the center of the body to retain wheelchairs, gurneys, or mobile beds. Building versatility into the body allows flexibility for it to be used to haul pallets, which can contain drinking water, supplies, cleanup materials, clothing, fuel, or any number of other materials that need to be transported during a flood.

Bodies will typically have a removable cover of canvas, polyester, or nylon. The sides can easily be rolled up to get air flow or rolled down when needed to protect the occupants from the elements. Stairs and ladders are designed to quickly deploy or stow and allow ambulatory evacuees safe, easy access to the seating area without having to climb up a tailgate. Extensive use of scene and body lighting is a big benefit during night operations, especially when heavy rain is encountered. Installing GPS and multiple forms of communications aid in navigating the flood environment as accessing victims is frequently difficult when primary and secondary roads are impassible. Finding alternate routes can be routine, as is the need to drive over curbs, sidewalks, etc. to reach trapped victims.

Fording depth is a big consideration. While it would be useful to have a vehicle that could negotiate six feet of water, that is not practical. Water depth of approximately 36 to 42 inches (the average height of a medium to large truck tire) is generally considered the limit of HWRVs. Deeper water can make depth gauging impossible. Also, the chassis frame, air intake, engine, and transmission become submerged when water is deeper than the tires. Rescuers, unless using a boat, have much difficulty handling victims in deep water. Wheelchair and bedridden patients must be carried in water over about 24 inches.

The challenge of using apparatus for victim evacuation during floods can be overcome by using purpose-built vehicles that are designed to operate in high water. HWRVs may be the best choice when evacuating large numbers of both mobile and non-ambulatory victims. FAMA member companies have risen to the occasion and gone to great lengths to bring vehicles to market that make the rescuers job easier, safer, and more efficient.

Check out FAMA member companies that manufacture HWRV at https://www.fama.org/members/list/.

FAMA is committed to the manufacture and sale of safe, efficient emergency response vehicles and equipment. FAMA urges fire departments to evaluate the full range of safety features offered by its member companies.