Online Exclusive

Firefighter Safety and Chasing Waterfalls

Chasing waterfalls was not only a term that was made famous in a popular song a while back; it is also a popular statement concerning dangerous behavior. It simply means that people who chase water downstream will eventually fall off the waterfall and endure deadly consequences. Application of this truism to real life is that people should avoid tempting fate, avoid taking undue risks, and avoid behaving with reckless abandon. The same concepts also apply to emergency response, and especially firefighting.

Chasing waterfalls is exactly what a world-class group of three kayakers did this past autumn on the African continent. The group was made up of two Americans, Chris Korbulic and Ben Stookesberry, and led by a noted whitewater guide from South Africa by the name of Hendri Coetzee. They set out to navigate 1,000 miles of the White Nile, Congo, and Lukuga Rivers all with substantial stretches of whitewater falls. Unfortunately, these same waters were also the home to deadly, man-eating crocodiles and hippopotamus.

The men were all experienced boaters and they were well aware of the risks with their trip. Coetzee even wrote in his blog entry in late November, "It is hard to know the difference between irrational fear and instinct, but fortunate is he who can. Often there is no clear right or wrong option, only the safest one. And, if safe was all I wanted, I would have stayed home. But this is the nature of the beast: risk." With the dual hazards of skillfully navigating fast cascading waters and boulders in the rivers along with steering clear of the eddies where hippos lurked, and staying away from the riverbanks where crocs warmed in the sun, the kayakers had plenty to watch out for. But risk is the chance of something adverse happening and in early December the odds caught up.

On the morning of Dec. 7, after enduring over 30 miles of whitewater on the Lukuga River, all three men were paddling in line closely in heavy rain when a 15 foot, two ton, crocodile erupted from the water and attacked Coetzee who was in the center boat. The other men could only watch in horror as their guide met his demise but they knew they had to quickly leave the area. They never saw Coetzee again and later they recovered his boat as it floated downstream. Even though Coetzee warned his followers to make noise to ward off predators and also avoid their typical areas where they lurked, he became a victim of their deadly habitat. Coetzee became a statistic.

The lessons from this tragic experience for the fire service are abundant. Chasing waterfalls, for these men, was their passion and they were literally the best in the world at not just surviving the activity, but also addressing the risk issues. The big change for them was that their normal activity of kayaking in whitewater was being done in a new environment, with new hazards and risks. While they were aware of the deadly hazards in the African waters, they were vulnerable, and ultimately the risk exceeded their capability to stay safe. Charles Darwin once wrote that "it is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones who are most responsive to change." These men were the strongest kayakers, they were smart in their preparations, but did they adequately respond to the changes in the environment they placed themselves in?

In the fire service we respond to a large array of hazards everyday in our business. The risks are numerous, and largely anticipated, but we need to be constantly vigilant or we could become the victims. The astute and aware firefighter should realize all of this and take precautions on every call, alarm, and emergency. And, all of the applications of training and drill sessions must positively transfer to the environment of the next call. Adaptation is the key, and consequently a self-evident axiom that is sanctioned by experience has evolved: If we do not respond promptly and appropriately to the perceived changes we encounter we may not survive.

A quick scan of recent documented incidents and published reports of fire service emergencies will show this axiom to be true; Firefighters have been killed and injured at seemingly innocuous and mundane events by inadequately assessing the risk of the situation and responding properly. (i.e. dumpster fires, electrocutions, falls, and lack of proper personal protective equipment) Firefighters have been killed and injured by assuming excessive risk in situations that are clearly losers. (i.e. operating in collapse zones, insufficient knowledge of building construction, inadequate risk/benefit analysis, and not conducting 360 degree size-ups) Firefighters have been killed and injured by not preparing and under-estimating the risk of such behavior. (i.e. heart attacks, strokes, poor driver training, and improper apparatus maintenance)

Far too many firefighters are killed and injured each year from chasing waterfalls. Most are strong, most are intelligent, and most did not respond to the changes that each incident presented and varied from the norm. This should not be. Regarding the African tragedy, the two surviving American kayakers, Korbulic and Stooksberry, spoke of Coetzee while on NBC's Today Show recently and they said that he was "just really loving how he was living his life - and the adventure it was taking him on." Echoing this joy for life Coetzee also wrote these words in his last blog entry; "We stood precariously on an unknown slope deep in the heart of Africa, for once my mind and heart agreed, I would never live a better day." Now, doesn't that sound like a firefighter talking?

Let's make 2011 a safe year and avoid chasing waterfalls!


  • "Kayakers recount deadly crocodile attack in Congo." By Jeff Barnard of The Associated Press. Dec. 21, 2010.

DAVID PETERSON, a Contributing Editor, is a 31-year veteran fire officer. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and has a B.S. degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University. David is also a graduate student in leadership with Grand Canyon University. View all of David's articles here. You can reach David by e-mail at