airboats in rescue emergencies


By Robert Dummett

During four months of the year, almost every fire department north of the Mason-Dixon Line that has a body of water within its response area is faced with the daily possibility of being called to perform ice rescue operations. During the rest of the year, in the absence of ice, departments are confronted with the race against time and hypothermia during water rescue operations.

Forest Lake, Minnesota

Airboats have many rescue response applications, including in ice (pictured), in cold water, and in fast-moving water. (Photo courtesy of the Forest Lake Times, Forest Lake, Minnesota)

Most departments have some plan for conducting cold water/ice rescue operations. However, lack of funding and limited training can severely limit resources and the experience needed to perform such rescues successfully.

Because of a lack of funding, some departments have had to resort to rudimentary methods of performing ice rescues, while those with more extravagant budgets have some of the best equipment on the market. Regardless of the equipment used in an ice rescue operation, personnel safety and time are the two greatest concerns.

Against Time

The Race Against Time

Typically, ice rescue operations require 45 to 90 minutes to execute. During that time, the victim is subjected to the elements and the onset of hypothermia. The sooner the victim is removed from the water, warmed, and given medical attention, the greater the victim’s chances of survival.

When conducting ice rescue operations, environmental and ice conditions will dictate the best method and equipment to use to access a victim. As with any rescue operation, there is no one best way to accomplish the task. However, one piece of equipment consistently proving its value and growing in popularity is the airboat. The airboat is better known for its operation in the Florida Everglades and for use in alligator hunting than for saving lives.

An airboat is essentially a flat-bottom boat that has no working parts on its exterior hull. It is propelled by a large aircraft-type propeller and is powered by an automobile or aircraft engine. An aluminum hull airboat with a polymer-clad bottom can easily traverse water, ice, vegetation, and even dry ground.

Airboats are currently in use in more than a hundred fire and rescue agencies across the country. They are used for conducting ice rescues, ventilating large structures, dispersing toxic gases, shallow water/marsh rescues, flood rescue and evacuation, and dive platforms during diving operations. It has been routinely reported that airboats have helped reduce the duration of ice rescue operations from 45 to 60 minutes down to 7 to 12 minutes.

Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue

The airboat can easily move from dry ground into water. (Photo by Captain Larry Ware, Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue)

During the winter of 2002-03, the Fox Lake (IL) Fire Rescue Department was credited with saving 16 people using its airboat. Fox Lake’s average victim retrieval time of 15 minutes was reduced to six minutes through the use of the airboat, according to The Daily Herald (Feb. 28, 2003). Departments reporting similar success include the Wonder Lake (IL) Fire Protection District, the Lake Geneva (WI) Fire Department, the Stevens Point (WI) Fire Department, the Conneaut (OH) Fire and Rescue Department, and the Lambertville/New Hope (NJ) Rescue Squad, to name a few.

Lieutenant Todd Rishling, water rescue and dive team leader of the Wonder Lake Fire Protection District, is a staunch believer in the merits of airboats for ice rescue operations: “Our boat has taken away the ‘WORK’ involved in ice rescues. We have reduced a 30 to 45-minute rescue down to five minutes. By doing so, we have also maximized the victim’s survivability.”

Wonder Lake put its custom-built, 18-foot, aluminum-hull airboat into service during the winter of 2001. Within a few days of delivery, the department responded to a call that a snowmobiler had fallen through the ice on Wonder Lake.

“Our first rescue with our airboat allowed an injured snowmobile rider to be quickly picked up and transported back to the shore in less than four minutes,” Rishling says. “Last year (winter of 2002), Wonder Lake Fire Protection District had seven successful ice-related rescues. One was performed by a single individual operating the airboat.

“Multiple victims can be quickly picked up by one team vs. the multiple-team approach from years past. The airboat also provides an ice diver a safe quick platform to work from,” Rishling adds.

Another ice rescue success story involves the Lumberland Fire Department in Glen Spey, New York. According to Assistant Chief Ron Flieger, on February 16, 2002, the department responded with its 18-foot airboat to a mutual-aid call involving “fall through the ice.” On members’ arrival, they found the Highland Lake Volunteer Fire Department attempting a rescue of a 24-year-old man who had fallen through the ice approximately 700 feet from shore. Highland Lake members had already donned dive suits and were working their way toward the 384-pound victim.

Without delay, Lumberland members launched their airboat, slid across the ice-covered lake, and removed the victim from the water within two minutes of launching. Within five minutes, they had him on shore being treated by EMS personnel. The victim had been in the water for a total of 15 minutes, with Lumberland having a nine-minute response time.


Safety Of Rescue Personnel

The primary goal in any ice rescue operation is to access, retrieve, and transport the victim to medical care as rapidly as possible while minimizing risks to rescue personnel. According to Rishling, “Wonder Lake members don’t have to walk, crawl, slide, or use a snowmobile (that doesn’t float) anymore to gain quick access to a victim. The elimination of physical fatigue has greatly enhanced the rescuers’ ability to function more efficiently in performing ice rescues. Additionally, the wear and tear on our ice suits and rescue boards is greatly reduced.”

Wonder Lake’s airboat is equipped with an onboard heater powered by the boat’s automotive engine. “It sure makes winter rescue operations nice,” Rishling says. “There is nothing like pulling a half-frozen victim into a warm boat. It is good for the victim and good for the rescuers.”

Assistant Chief Michael Smith with the Conneaut (OH) Fire-Rescue Department describes the use of the airboat as a dive platform and the safety features that the airboat offers the dive team: “Our airboat is used extensively by the dive team. Divers who have made recoveries of drownings and near-drownings appreciate the fact there is no prop in the water. When recovering a victim from the bottom of a lake or stream, they can quickly come to the surface without fear of a propeller,” says Smith.



Airboats have a much greater payload than other rescue boats and still maintain the ability to traverse shallow water or ice.

Typically, a 16 by 8 foot airboat can seat four to five crew members, with a total carrying capacity of 10 passengers or a total 2,000-pound load capacity. The same size airboat, specifically designed for search and rescue operations, can accommodate up to four immobilized patients on backboards or in stokes baskets, in addition to the crew and rescue equipment.

An 18 by 8 foot airboat can seat five to six crew members, with a total load capacity of 3,000 pounds. With a four-member crew, an 18 by 8 foot airboat can accommodate four evacuees/patients and ap-proximately 1,400 pounds of rescue and dive equipment.

A description of a multiple-victim ice rescue incident that occurred in Seneca Falls, New York, appeared in an article in the Democrat-Chronicle (March 16, 2003): “On March 15, 2003, in Seneca Falls, New York, the Red Jacket Fire Department was called upon to rescue 14 fishermen who had either fallen through the ice or were stranded by unstable ice conditions.”

According to the article, the Red Jacket Fire Department responded with another type of rescue boat and evacuated the stranded fishermen one-by-one over nearly a four-hour period.

In comparison, had an 18-foot airboat with a passenger capacity of eight to 10 adults been used in that same incident, the mission could have been accomplished in far less time with far less risk to rescue personnel and victims.

Ed Skillman, former chief of the Lambertville-New Hope (NJ) Rescue Squad, describes his first experience with airboats for rescue operations as “skeptical.” However, the 18 years that his rescue squad has been using an airboat has made him a believer: “When we first looked into purchasing our airboat, we were all skeptical, but after being involved in many types of rescues, I would not want to be in any other type boat in the river we serve,” Skillman says.

The Squad is responsible for covering approximately 12 miles of the Delaware River between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “We purchased our first airboat in 1985 after we found the need for a more efficient and safer way to rescue people in trouble along the river,” Skillman says. “The area we cover varies greatly. In our territory, the river contains two low head dams, one of which is very treacherous with very large rocks and whitewater. And, there are some sections that are very calm and relaxing at times. The river is used by many different types of people in many different types of vessels. We have fishermen, kayakers, canoers, tubers, jetskiers, scullyrowers, and every imaginable watercraft.”

He adds, “The reason we bought our airboat was because we were putting ourselves in dangerous situations during rescue operations, situations that were causing high maintenance and damage to our conventional jet drive and prop-driven V-hull boats. With our airboat, we can deploy faster, get the victim more quickly and in a much safer manner. Also, the airboat has enough room to carry medical personnel and spinal immobilization equipment to the victims. Our airboat allows us to go from a few inches of water, near a desolate island in the river, to the main channel, near bridge piers, and cover whitewater areas. The airboat’s generator-powered lighting system provides illumination that permits visibility and safe rescue operations 24 hours a day.”


Launching: No Water Necessary

Another advantage of using airboats for water or ice rescue operations is that no designated launch site is needed. An airboat’s design makes it capable of being launched almost anywhere, regardless of the presence of water or a wet surface. An airboat, equipped with an adequate power plant and a polymer-clad bottom, is capable of running on dry ground, even with a full payload.

When being deployed for emergency operations, an airboat can be run directly off its trailer; across dry ground, mud, ice, or snow; down an embankment; and out onto the body of water or ice with minimal launch time. This capability also makes launching a one-person operation and expedient.

The Steven’s Point (WI) Fire-Rescue Department purchased a turntable-style trailer to transport its airboat. The trailer’s unique design allows the members to transport their airboat bow forward, across the open road. On arrival at their deployment site, they simply pull a couple of pins, turn the airboat and trailer top 180 degrees, and power the boat off the trailer bow first into the water or onto the ice.

Not Only

Not Only For Ice

The Forest Lake Fire (MN) Department took delivery of its first airboat in March 2001. Forest Lake’s first rescue mission using the new airboat occurred on April 10, 2001, when a canoeist overturned on Howard Lake in Columbus Township. The canoeist was spotted in the water near the middle of the lake by a bystander who heard screams for help and called 9-1-1.

A member of the responding rescue crew and airboat operator Joe Strunk stated that because of marshy conditions on the shoreline, deployment of a conventional watercraft was impossible.

According to an article appearing in the Forest Lake Times by Bert Brown, after unloading the airboat, the rescue team drove it across dry ground from Kettle River Boulevard out into the marshy shoreline of the lake. Out on the lake, the rescue team spotted the victim near a thick patch of cattails. Within seconds of entering the water, the rescue crew reached the victim and pulled him into the airboat.

Forest Lake Deputy Chief Bruce Wightman described the victim as being stuck “waist-deep in muck and unable to move” when the airboat rescue team reached him. The victim was returned to shore and transported to the hospital with severe hypothermia.

Wightman is quoted as saying, “I honestly don’t know how we would have been able to get to him without the airboat. It would have been tough dragging a flatbed boat and oars through that swamp.” He adds that he wasn’t sure they would have had the time to try a rescue without the use of the airboat: “It’s hard to say how much longer he could have stayed out there, considering the shape he was in.”

According to the Forest Lake Times, Anoka County investigator Scott Bechthold states that he was impressed with the way the fire department used its new airboat. “In my 20 years with the sheriff’s office, I had never seen an airboat rescue,” Bechthold says. “It certainly paid for itself today. With a regular boat, it would have been difficult to get to him.”

On October 26, 2001, the Forest Lake Fire Department was called to rescue a stranded duck hunter in the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area. The hunter had become stuck in muck and was unable to free himself. The rescue was accomplished within minutes with the use of the airboat. Once deployed, the airboat skimmed effortlessly across the marsh and muck to the stranded hunter. The rescue crew was able to free the hunter and load him into the boat without incident and transport him to a waiting ambulance for medical attention.

Durability & Reliability

Durability & Reliability

A polymer-clad aluminum-hull airboat can withstand the destructive pounding of jagged ice that would rip other boats to shreds. An aluminum airboat’s construction, coupled with a polymer hull covering, allows it to withstand the otherwise destructive punishment from ice shoves, rocks, logs, and tree stumps.

Captain John Zinda of the Steven’s Point (WI) Fire Department describes the conditions under which they operate their airboat: “Stevens Point is located on the Wisconsin River, and that river has presented some challenges for our rescue personnel over the years. The river’s most dangerous time of the year is during the ‘ice-out,’ when the river can flow at up to 90,000 cfs, with debris and ice flows. Those conditions make rescues on the river extremely difficult and dangerous. Until we purchased our custom designed airboat, our rescue personnel were exposed to much greater risk when performing rescues on the river. The airboat has served to minimize those risks.”

“Our airboat has an armored hull, and its flat deck prevents taking on water under rough conditions. The deck also provides a large stable platform for rescue work,” he adds.

Without a lower unit or prop in the water to damage or a water intake for propulsion, the airboat is a far more reliable vessel for rescue work than the prop-driven boats that Steven’s Point had used in the past. And airboats do not have skirts that can be torn or damaged.

Airboats used for search and rescue operations can also be equipped with an autoinflation device, similar to that of an automobile airbag or personal flotation devices that will prevent sinking. The device can be designed for automatic or manual activation.

Rick Meitzler, former director of Charleston County (SC) Eme-rgency Services, describes the autoinflation device as an essential accessory for their airboat because of Charleston County’s response across the deep open water of its coastal territory during foul weather and squalls to access the large marsh areas and islands. On numerous occasions, the Charleston County airboat has been called to rescue boaters and stranded hunters and access plane crashes in the coastal waters. Since installing the autoinflation device, Charleston County has not lost a single airboat to capsizing or sinking.

Smith from Conneaut Fire says, “The Conneaut Fire-Rescue Department’s airboat has been involved in two whitewater rescues that resulted in saving four lives. Both were canoe accidents, and both occurred in approximately the same location and under the same conditions. The victims in both cases had capsized their canoes and were stranded in trees. The sides of the river were sheer cliffs. Options included rappelling down the 50-foot cliffs into the water, but rescuers still had no means of getting to the victims, who were in water over their heads and far from shore. The water was also extremely swift. Noise from the rushing water made communication with the victims impossible. Farther downstream, personnel were stationed with throw bags as a backup.

“Since the water was extremely cold, the airboat crew donned survival suits. The airboat entered the water upstream of the victims, because there was no safe launch point below the victims for several miles. The airboat went downstream past the victims and then turned upstream. The pilot of the airboat held the boat against the tree containing the victims. Life jackets were passed to the victims. After they had the life jackets on, the victims were helped into the airboat.

“The pilot then backed us off the tree, turned into the stream, and took the airboat back to the launch point, where the victims were treated by paramedics. All victims were treated and released from the hospital. Our crew received an award from the Ohio Division of Natural Resources, Division of Watercraft for Professional Excellence and Commitment to the Preservation of Human Life.

“The bottom line is that a swiftwater rescue was made with a three-person crew. (It could have been done with two.) The airboat has the ability to negotiate whitewater conditions; run over logs, rocks, and other obstacles in the water; approach the victims in a safe manner; effect the rescue; and return them to safety with minimal risk to the rescuers.”


The Powerplant

Traditionally, airboats have been considered unstable and top-heavy vessels with an inherent ability to easily capsize and sink; thus, they were viewed as impractical for deep, open water, or swiftwater use. Recent technology has addressed those issues and has resolved those problems, making airboats extremely practical vessels for search and rescue application.

Automotive engines installed on many new airboats make them extremely reliable, and anyone with minimal mechanical ability can easily work on them. Automobile engines used on modern airboats range from 60 horsepower Volkswagen engines to the more than 600-horsepower, electronic-ignition, fuel-injected marine engines. However, the most common and practical automobile engines for an airboat are the Chevrolet 350-, 454-, and 502-cubic-inch engines. Matched to the appropriate sized airboat hull, these engines provide excellent service and reliability.

Automobile engines are used on airboats; no special parts are needed. Engine parts can be obtained at a local auto parts store. Also, the fuel for an airboat equipped with an automobile engine can be obtained at any gasoline service station. Other than for routine maintenance, airboats require no special care. Their uncomplicated design and operational components lend to their easy upkeep.

Every automobile engine installed in an airboat must be equipped with a gear reduction unit to achieve the maximum performance from the engine. This is where modern technology has eliminated the traditional top-heavy characteristic of airboats. Air-boats can now be equipped with a “long-belt gear reduction drive unit.” This mechanism allows the automobile engine to be mounted to the interior hull of the boat, eliminating the high center of gravity that previously contributed to the airboat’s instability. With the airboat’s engine mounted on the bottom deck of the hull, the airboat is capable of operating in extremely rough water conditions, without the risk of capsizing. In addition, this drive unit increases the handling and performance of the airboat.

Airboats are no different from any other piece of equipment used in the fire service: Only formally trained and qualified persons should operate airboats and perform maintenance.

forward deck

The forward deck with rescue equipment and open forward deck hatch

airboat deck

The deck of a 18 by 8 foot airboat with closed deck hatches

454 c.i. Chevrolet

An airboat equipped with a 454-cubic-inch Chevrolet automotive engine

Chevrolet engine

A Chevrolet automotive engine with a gear reduction drive unit as commonly installed in airboats

Cost Justification

Cost Justification

At what price comes rescue? A simple calculation of apparatus costs, fuel, man-hours, standby time of private EMS providers, mutual aid, and the time donated by volunteer personnel away from work that accrue during a typical ice rescue operation will easily justify the cost of an airboat to perform such tasks. Such an operation can easily involve deployment costs of $3,000 to $7,000 per hour, without helicopter utilization.

Use the low figure of $3,000 and multiply that by the number of possible ice rescue operations per season (3), times the life expectancy of an airboat (10 to 15 years). That calculation (3,000 x 3 x 10 = 90,000) (2004 figures) does not take into account that the longer rescue personnel remain on-scene, the greater the possibility of a line-of-duty injury, consequently resulting in greater costs to the department. Thus, a $30,000 airboat will well pay for itself during its time in service.

According to Rishling, “The Wonder Lake Fire Protection District’s savings for just one life is priceless. Add up our total saves … well, the airboat has paid for itself 10 times over. Our overall expense, in the world of fire/rescue, was minimal. Compared with our pumpers, ambulances, and squad, the airboat was a great purchase at an affordable price. The time saved by the use of the airboat has drastically reduced not only the overall rescue time but the total scene time for ice rescues.”

In Smith’s opinion, “Considering the cost of fire department equipment—engines, tankers, heavy rescues, ladders—and the low cost of airboats, I can’t imagine a department not having an airboat if there are streams, lakes, or rivers in its coverage area.”

Historically, cold water and ice rescue operations have been labor-intensive, taxing the resources of nearly every rescue service that has been called to perform such tasks. Continually, those tasks have strained the physical and psychological endurance of responders. Any piece of equipment that can minimize risk to responding personnel and reduce the time required to perform lifesaving rescue operations by a quantifiable figure of 50 to 80 percent deserves serious consideration.

The affordability of an airboat is based on its design. Nearly all airboats are custom-made vessels that can be constructed to any rescue service’s specifications. Quality airboats, capable of performing rescue operations, can be purchased from between $25,000 and $40,000 (2004 figures). Compared with the cost of a pumper or an ambulance, an airboat is an inexpensive investment.

Robert Dummett

Robert Dummett

A 22-year fire service veteran, with 17 years as a firefighter/paramedic for Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue, Robert Dummett is the coordinator of the Miami-Dade Marine Services Bureau Airboat Rescue Program. Following the 1996 Valu-Jet crash in the Florida Everglades, he was given the responsibility of developing an airboat rescue and response program for the department. Dummett has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a graduate certificate in EMS management from Florida International University in Miami. He is a member of the department’s Air-Deployable SCUBA Dive Rescue Team and holds certifications as a marine shipboard firefighter, a fire service instructor, an ACLS instructor, and a safe boating instructor.

open whatsapp
What can we do for you?