Swiftwater Search and Rescue Assisted with Passenger Transportation in Train Derailment

Storms associated with El Niño pounded California throughout a three-day stretch last week leaving some residents fleeing their communities and others needing to be rescued from floodwater.

More rain is on the way.

A train derailment in Northern California was partially blamed on a mudslide due to heavy rain. Four people had to be rescued along the Los Angeles River due to rising water, and Santa Cruz County residents living along Soquel Creek and the Upper San Lorenzo River were evacuated.

Flash floods pose an abundance of problems, the most of which consists to public safety.

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) Fire and Rescue Swiftwater Program is designed to perform life-saving techniques in water-related emergency situations.

Swiftwater is a function of Special Operations under the Fire and Rescue Division.

“They’re very valuable,” said Cal OES Fire Chief Kim Zagaris of swiftwater teams. “We work hand-in-hand with law enforcement and coordinate between the disciplines who also have water rescue capability.”

Swiftwater teams from Alameda County Fire Department, Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department and Fremont City Fire Department assisted in the derailment aftermath of the Alameda Corridor Express commuter train derailing en route from San Jose to Stockton on March 7, and assisted with evacuation of passengers waiting for buses Niles Canyon Road by swiftwater teams.

Swiftwater/Flood Rescue Teams is a type of technical rescue that involves the use of 13 highly specially trained personnel and specialized water rescue equipment.

The current locations of 13 Cal OES swiftwater teams include:

  • Los Angeles City Fire
  • Los Angeles County Fire
  • Menlo Park Fire Protection District
  • Oakland City Fire Department
  • Orange County Fire Authority
  • Riverside City Fire Department
  • Sacramento City Fire Department
  • San Diego City Fire Rescue Department
  • Sacramento Metro Fire District
  • Ventura County Fire Department
  • Marin County Fire Department
  • Long Beach City Fire Department
  • Stockton City Fire Department

More on swiftwater search and rescue operations can be found here.

In 2007, Cal OES was granted $1.8 million from Federal Department of Homeland Security for equipment upgrades. Statewide flooding in 1995 and 1996-97 allowed Cal OES to purchase additional equipment to support larger emergency operations. Additional equipment was purchased in 2001 and 2003 to support emergency operations.

“We assisted in swiftwater for Hurricane Katrina and we were on alert for (Hurricane) Sandy,” Cal OES Deputy Chief Lorenzo Gigliotti said. “Something that makes California different than most of the rest of the country is the type of assistance we are able to provide.”

While wind and rain caused havoc across the state over the weekend, there doesn’t appear to be any substantial breaks in the weather in the extended forecast.

After a dry period for the majority of the week, a wet Pacific storm should bring rain and mountain snow to Northern California, possibly as early as tonight.

Down south, temperatures rose into the mid-70s by mid-week but rain was on the horizon for Friday. Snow should return to the Sierras by the weekend and stick around for as many as five days.

Because of last weekend’s storms, concerns are heightened about potential flooding with the impending weather system.

“Part of the problem is that some of these rivers are already swollen,” Zagaris said. “Depending on what the weather does, we just have to see what occurs and what happens.”

The National Weather Service (NWS) is predicting that this upcoming weekend could be equally as wet as this past weekend, where some counties received more than 6 inches.

The increased sensitivity of rivers and levees puts swiftwater teams on alert.

“It all depends on when it hits, how it hits, do people go where they shouldn’t,” said Zagaris.

Weather systems this week could present minor flooding and travel delays, according to NWS.

Information on flood preparedness and how to react during and after a flood can be found here.


Jonathan Gudel

Jonathan Gudel is a Public Information Officer for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). Since joining Cal OES, he has assisted in the response and recovery efforts of the Aliso Canyon Gas Leak, the state's historic drought, the Oroville Dam Emergency Spillway Incident, unprecedented winter storms in 2017, the October (Sonoma County) and December (Santa Barbara County) 2017 wildfires, and statewide wildfire siege in 2018 . Previously, he worked in the newspaper industry for 12 years.

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