Swimming and boating. White-water rafting. Kayaking. Hurricanes and tropical storms. Flooding. These are all potential activities or situations that can lead to circumstances that may require a water rescue.
If your job requires you to perform a water rescue, it is paramount that you are properly equipped with the right gear so that you remain safe and protected while you perform your rescue duties. Some of the most common mistakes that result in injury to the rescuer include not being properly trained and not having the correct equipment.
As a water rescuer, your equipment needs will be different based on your level of training and the types of water rescues you generally perform.
If you have little exposure to swift water, and don’t typically enter the water but may operate close to it, your gear should include a helmet, personal flotation device (PFD), proper footwear and a throw-bag.
If you tend to assist with in-water rescues and could perform swims, you need the above protection with added thermal protection.
Finally, if your role is a technician and your job is to conduct the in-water rescues, you’ll need all of the gear above and should also add gloves.
Personal protection equipment is grouped into three categories: physical protection, thermal protection and flotation. Let’s dive a little deeper into each piece of equipment and what you should look for when purchasing your safety equipment.
Water Rescue Helmet. Floating objects or debris can appear from nowhere, so it’s extremely important to keep your head protected. The number one rule when choosing a helmet – choose a water rescue helmet specifically, as a fire helmet is not the same thing.
Typically lightweight, water-rescue helmets are designed to help the water drain away from your face. They often come with a knob that allows you to custom fit the helmet to your head, and an adjustable chinstrap to tighten accordingly. You should also be sure your helmet has ventilation or drainage ports so that water easily flows out of the helmet should you become submerged at any point.
Coverage is also key. You want a helmet that covers your forehead, making sure all areas of your skull are protected.
As with other PPE, one of the most important factors to consider is comfort. If you’re not comfortable wearing your helmet, chances are you won’t put it on when it’s necessary, completely eliminating any protection for your head.
Keep in mind that if you’re doing a lot of cold-water rescues, you’ll want to try your helmet on with a beanie or skullcap that you’d wear for extra warmth. The helmet should fit snugly, with or without the beanie.
Proper Footwear.This piece of equipment is often overlooked when it comes to water rescue gear. The footwear isn’t meant to provide you protection so much in the water as it is out of the water and on the shore. Many injuries occur on the slippery, jagged rocks when you are trying to remove victims from the water.
Footwear can come in the form of water shoes or booties, sneakers, a nonslip boot, or swim fins. Most rescuers choose a water/river shoe or nonslip boot. River shoes are constructed from neoprene which helps provide a secure fit and adds warmth. A neoprene insole will also help absorb the shock as you step.
Choose a pair of river shoes that are easy to swim with but will also provide protection and prevent slippage while walking. Ultimately, it’s best to select a shoe based on the environment you’re in – if you’re doing a lot of swift-water rescues, you may need a heavier duty boot. And as always, if you train in the equipment you use every day, you’ll become accustomed to the feel of swimming with a heavier foot.
Wetsuit/dry-suit.There are really only two options when it comes to thermal protection. A wetsuit or a dry suit.
Wetsuits are made of rubber neoprene and are designed to provide warmth while in the water, but they are not waterproof. If your suit is loose, you will get cold. Wetsuits also provide impact protection and prevention from abrasions.
They are typically inexpensive, comfortable to wear and durable. Unfortunately, they can be a bit restrictive, making swimming difficult (quite the issue when you’re performing water rescues) and are not very warm outside of the water. This can be problematic if you’re performing cold-water rescues or the outside temperature is not warm.
Dry-suits provide the most warmth in and out of the water as they provide full body coverage and are completely waterproof. They don’t often have impact/abrasion protection and if the suit tears it is ineffective in the water.
They may also have latex around the neck and wrists to prevent water from seeping in, but that may be uncomfortable for you. However, if you’re working in cold-water situations, the only choice is a dry-suit.
Gloves.In addition to keeping your hands warm, gloves are a necessary piece of equipment to ensure the ability to grip a rope and prevent rope burns. You want a glove that gives you the ability to have a solid grip, keeping you in touch with your equipment. Padding on the knuckles and back of your hands adds an extra layer of protection. Choose a glove that is made from neoprene, and a fitted cuff to help keep water from seeping in.
Personal Flotation Device (PFD). A good rule of thumb is that no rescuer should be within ten feet of shore without wearing a personal flotation device. When choosing a PFD for your gear, remember that it should follow the standards set by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The typical standard is to choose a flotation device that is Type III or Type V. Type III devices are usually meant for calm waters, where the rescue occurs quickly. This PFD allows the wearer to remain vertical, but they will need to get themselves into a face-up position. Type III devices come in the form of coats, jackets and vests. They are not meant for rough waters as the high waves may cover the wearer’s face.
Type V devices offer more buoyancy and are geared toward rougher waters where a rescue may take a little longer to occur. While these are a bit bulkier, they have the buoyancy to turn an unconscious person into a face-up position.
Rescue PFD’s can be most beneficial for those who are working in swift-water rescues, but their specialized features require lots of practice and training to ensure they are used safely.
These vests tend to come equipped with a quick release harness so that you may perform a tethered swim. It’s also important to ensure that your PFD has either a pocket or a place to attach a whistle and knife. These are fundamental pieces of equipment for any water rescue.
Again, with all personal protection equipment, a proper fit is necessary. It should feel comfortable, but snug. A good way to test this is to have a colleague pull up from the shoulders. The PFD is properly fit if it doesn’t slip up to your chin when tugged on.
Rescue/Throw Bag.The throw bag is a fundamental piece of safety equipment that can help to rescue a swimmer. Most PFDs have a belt clip that allows you to attach a throw bag to your person, allowing you to swim out to a victim and toss the rope to them as opposed to having to toss from shore.
These bags are typically constructed of a synthetic material that will help keep the bag afloat once it’s empty. Be sure to choose a rope that is made from polypropylene so that the rope will also float. The bright colors will make the rope more visible to the victim which will also aid in the rescue.
As with any rescue role, having the proper equipment promotes not only the safety of the person you are rescuing, but your safety as well. Be sure to train with your equipment so you understand the nuances before you enter a pressure-packed situation, and follow all of the guidelines for proper care. This is especially important in water rescues because once the water seeps into your gear, you’ll potentially become wet and cold, putting yourself in a dangerous position.
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