low-head dam safety video

A water-rescue training firm has just made availible a video of firefighters drowning in a dam hydraulic. The footage is from 1975 – I first saw it in EMT class 20 years ago as part of a training film on low-head dams called “The Drowning Machine”. The river pictured is in flood, but the drop is less than two feet. I think that’s the critical message – it doesn’t look dangerous, and a novice boater would probably think it’d be perfectly safe to run.

The firefighters have no idea what they’re getting into – they come up from downstream, cross the boil line, capsize, and get recirculated. The same thing happens to a second boat that tries to rescue them. It’s not fun to watch. But if you live or paddle anywhere near a low-head dam it’s something you probably should see.

It’s a 16-minute video, so it’s a huge file(360 meg). Don’t bother if you have a dialup connection.

Binghamton Fire Department Drowning Incident Video Clip

This video is the actual and edited film clip taken by news reporters which shows two Firefighters drown and 5 who almost drown while attempting to recover a PFD from the face of a low-head dam. This footage was taken the day after a child drowned when his raft overturned in the swollen river and a Police Officer drowned when his boat overturned during the search for that child.


I live near this, the story is legend.

A real eye opener.

– Last Updated: Nov-04-04 6:24 AM EST –

I had no idea that the hydralic effect would extend so far downstream from the dam. Amazing and frightening video for sure.

How could this happen?
I can’t believe how poorly trained the rescuers are. You would think that even back in 1975 a fire department located on a large river would have it’s fire fighters thourougly trained in water rescues of this type. How sad.

That’s pretty surreal the way the chief is just standing in the boat like that. Out of curiosity, what is the best action to take if you found yourself in this position?

sit down.
:wink: you’re not suppose to be standing.

I had a friend who tried to run a fish ladder once. He made it thru about half the reversals before his momentum died and he got ‘stuck’. he swam and made repeated attemps at exiting only to be pushed back to the center. he finally relaxed and basically ‘gave up’. He magically floated free. it was surreal.

Another ol’ school technique is take off your PFD and try and swim out the bottom. Holding onto a paddle and working the currents excaping out the bottom of the hydaulic are a possibility as well.

rescue personel sometimes inflate a hose and try and pass it to the swimmer. Teathered ‘live bait’ rescuers might work. the problem is getting close enough with the belay w/o getting caught in the backwash. in the vid it goes out a long ways and is quite powerful.

They now design low heads with breaks in the falls to break up the reversal

steve- Swiftwater Rescue old timer

I need to try that 'sitting down’
yea, I guess I phrased that wrong. ha.

I was assuming that it might be possible to swim down and catch a ride out deep down, but then that means you lose your PFD…a gamble. I’ve been caught in a strong riptide in Hawaii and luckily knew what to do, but it’s hard not to panic.

Were the two who died in the video both from the first boat? They were in for so long.

Has something gone wrong with download
Could not download, may something have changed or gone wrong with site.


Coudl not dl
Same here the link went to a bizland web page. I would like to see the vid.

Just worked
for me.

I saw it at a river safety symposium back in the late '70s. Sitting in a room of river professionals, watching as the scenario unfolds, as the boat approaches the boil everyone in the room is muttering “no, no, no” under their breath.

Back in '75 the “science” of river rescue was in it’s infancy. Fire departments routinely wore their standard turn-out gear, including boots and helmets.

A scary portion is when another firefighter has to be restrained to prevent him from diving into the hydraulic in an attempt to save his comrads.

Very sad, but an invaluable training tool


I wish
Thanks for the info that there are better designs for the dams. They replaced the Wanawish (Horn Rapids) dam on the Yakima River just a few years ago but, if anything, made it more dangerous with a traditional design. Our local dive rescue has basically said that if anyone gets caught in it, there is nothing they could do. I was wondering if there was a better way. Grrr!

I ‘thought’ everyone was engineering low heads for safety now. All it takes is a finger parallel to the flow to create an mid-stream eddy. This allows an escape route and breaks up the boil line.

better be careful on the Yakima, eh?


Ditto the Bizland
Tho I couldn’t bring it up this is something that should be mandatory watching for anyone contemplating a kayak/canoe purchase with the intent of using it on area streams and small rivers.

how did you get this vid to play? When I click the link, it takes me to a Bizland’ page w/ instructions to log in.

If there’s anything you think that will help, please help…as I am very computer illerate.


Don’t know
But anytime you unexpectedly get taken to a commercial site I’d suspect that your machine is infected.

This is a reputable site that might help:


something else here
It happened to me now too. I know I have no virus, it may be that the site allows only so much downloading and it is over quota, or the browser OS system does not work with the site. Otherwise, help anyone?

No infection
Bizland is the company that hosts that particular web domain. If you try a right-click-save-as on the link, it’ll come up as ‘bandwidth.htm’ rather than as the video file.

ISPs normally put a cap on how much bandwidth a site can use in any particular day. I’m sure a bunch of pnet folks downloading a 300+ MB video is crushing that limit pretty quickly. That also would explain why it keeps working and not working. The first couple of people to play the video after the bandwidth counter gets ‘reset’ each day will succeed. Then the limit gets reached, and it stops working again…

Could they retrofit?
I’d go to the irrigation district and propose a fix. (They might cut me off next summer when the temperature is in the 100s, though:-)

quite a few have been re-tro fit with wings or fingers protuding downstream from the dam, creating an eddy at the end of the finger.

whenever you break up the backwash you can kill some of the reverse effect of the hyraulic.

I’m pretty sure they had some major refitting of a lot of dams in the past, once the ‘drowning machine’ aspect of the design was discovered.