SAN MARCOS, Texas – San Antonio and a large portion of Texas are located in a notorious area known as Flash Flood Alley. When it rains hard, normally dry creeks and streams can flood fast, often with deadly consequences.
On the night of Sept. 18, 2014, a heavy rainstorm hit the Austin area and took the life of Travis County Sheriff's Deputy Jessica Hollis. She was a veteran of the department who was a good swimmer and served on the agency's dive recovery team.
"It was a horrible night. She got swept away. She turned a corner and entered a stream she didn't even realize was there," said Lynn Burttschell, special operations manager for the Texas Department of Public Safety's Division of Emergency Management. "She was fit. She was aware. She was trained. She still had a poor outcome."
Despite her training, Hollis was likely not expecting to have her patrol car end up in a rain-swollen creek. According to reports, at some point, she left her vehicle and communicated to the dispatcher that she was trying to get to a tree. Search teams found her body the next day.
Hollis' death was a wake-up call for law enforcement. DPS leaders wanted to avoid a similar tragedy from being repeated in their agency. The decision was made to create a basic safety course to teach troopers lifesaving skills and provide them with the right equipment to keep them safe.
Nearly four years after Hollis' death, roughly 800 of DPS' 3,000 highway patrol troopers have been through the swift water awareness class.
Taught by members of the state's Division of Emergency Management, the class puts troopers through real-life scenarios on the San Marcos River at Rio Vista Park, where there's a series of waterfalls that mimic the conditions of fast moving floodwaters.
"The main focus of this class is to get out alive. If you have a bad day, let's get you out first," Burttschell said during a recent class. "It's a safety class for our troopers. It's a proactive approach to keep these guys safe. They're out there first responding to all of our flood events."
Troopers learn how to rescue themselves should they end up in flood waters. Instructors submerge a simulator that resembles the front seat of a patrol vehicle and show the class how to properly put on their life vests and exit the sinking car as water surrounds them.
"Once the jacket's on, he's going to start to make his exit plan out of the car. As he goes out the exit point, he leads with his head and shoulders first and looking up and holds onto the seat belt so he has a solid object to hold onto," Burttschell explained. "He'll get as high as he can out of the water and the car and still maintaining control of that seat belt just in case he slides off. Once he's on top, if he's nice and secure, he's going to stay right there with the car. We teach them: ‘Don't leave the car until you have to. Always be prepared to leave but don't leave unless you have to.’ If I come looking for them in a rescue environment, it’s easier to find a car than a single person."
Burttschell pointed to several features on the water, including the way it flows around rocks, how the main current flows and creates slower moving eddies near the shore that would be a good place to find an escape route. He wants troopers to be able to identify safe ways to exit the water, and he wants them to be able to paint a picture of the water conditions for rescuers that will be responding.
"It all comes back to hydrology, understanding the flow of the water," Burttschell said. "As soon as I understand the flow of the water, I understand the risk. I understand the potential for what's about to happen. So, if I can teach that trooper simple skills of painting the picture so when everyone else is coming, they understand what bad looks like before they ever get there. If they call for the right equipment, it's going to speed everything up and have a much better outcome for someone in need."
DPS has spent roughly $700,000 on new safety equipment for troopers who take the class. They are outfitted with a helmet, life vest and a bag of rope that they can keep with them in their patrol vehicles when bad weather hits.
"When they're in that flood warning or flood watch stage, they put it in the passenger seat of the car. It's seat-belted in. It's right there, and they can put their hands on it anytime," Burttschell said. "No one's going to intentionally drive their vehicle into a flooded stream, so they're not going to anticipate doing it. If they turn the corner in the darkness, I don't want them to search for (the vest). They know it's going to be sitting there. It's going to be in the seat belt. They can reach over and grab it and put it on. If I hit the water, I don't have to think: ‘Where's my life jacket? Is it in the back? Is it in the front? When I opened the window, did it get washed to the back of the Tahoe? Can I now not get to it?’ I put it in the same place all the time."
Burttschell also tells the troopers to keep their seat belts on as long as they can before trying to exit a vehicle that is filling up with water.
"I make sure that they open the window or open the door before they ever remove their seat belt, Burttschell said. If I open that window and the water comes rushing in it could remove me from my seat and push me to the back side of the car and I get trapped in my own car."
While the course is mainly geared toward teaching troopers how to save themselves, they also pick up some basic rescue skills, such as throwing a rope to someone stuck in flood waters.
"I want to keep my troopers safe, but I also want them to affect the safety of someone else. So if I can get a rope out to that person that's in distress, maybe they can move them back to shore without ever having to get themselves in harm’s way," Burttschell said. "A lot of times, these guys are just going out, closing the roadway. Maybe they got there a little too late and someone's already made their way into the water. They're going to be the first ones there."
The investment in equipment and training has already paid off for DPS during Hurricane Harvey. Troopers were credited with rescuing more than 2,700 people from floodwaters.
"We were able to get into some of those flooded neighborhoods and be able to affect some rescues coming out of there," said Sgt. Michael Monaghan, with DPS's Reality Based Training Unit. "It's a huge change. We've always wanted to help and wanted to be out there because we're always responding to the natural disasters, but we did the best we could with what we had. But now, with the (leadership's) support and wanting us to push this and get it to all the troopers out there, it's going to have a huge impact on the lives we save and the effect we have when we deploy to these areas. It's greatly increased our capabilities, especially coming up to hurricane season."
Being tossed around in cold water while wearing a police uniform is exhausting work, and for many troopers, the course is an eye-opening experience. That's exactly what it's designed to be and it's why the agency has made it a requirement for all new recruits going through the DPS academy.
"From this point forward, everybody that joins DPS, every one of our troopers, will have this core knowledge as they move forward in their career. It's going to take us awhile to catch up to those that are out on the streets. We're going to get there. It's just going to take us some time," Burttschell said. "I want them to realize, ‘Wow, that water really is powerful. I might be a good swimmer, but that water is going to win.’ Understanding what that water can potentially do to them makes for a safer environment."