Gear Test: First Alert's Rescue Mat

Many of you probably wouldn’t equate the Buffalo, N.Y., area with water, but nothing could be further from the truth. Buffalo is located on Lake Erie, separated from Canada by the Niagara River and traversed by the Erie Canal, not to mention it’s within splashing distance of Niagara Falls. Every ounce of water that goes over Niagara Falls passes by good ol’ Buffalo. Additionally, in the summer, water recreation abounds, and in the winter, it’s ice fishing and pond hockey season. In suburban areas of Buffalo, there are many creeks, streams and even some ponds. Real estate agents would call them lakes, but they’re really just retention ponds–one of the requirements for building a subdivision.

Anyhow, am I getting my point across? We have water. And wherever you are, you probably have water, too. It’s a simple fact that wherever water and people mix, there are also water emergencies. And this isn’t just the case at massive bodies of water like Lake Erie or the Atlantic–you can drown in a pond just as easily as in the ocean.

So what’s the takeaway? All firefighters must be prepared to respond to water rescues. The level of preparation varies, of course. Your department could be “fully equipped” with a floating ring attached to a rope, or you could have a fully staffed and equipped dive-rescue team. Either way, if something happens, you’re probably going.

With water all around us, departments are always looking for new water rescue-related devices–anything to help in such complex and dangerous situations–so I was excited when I had the opportunity to test First Alert’s Rescue Mat, a rescue floatation device that can be deployed to help rescuers reach victims in the water.

After toying around with the Rescue Mat for a few months, I think this product would be good for all departments that respond to water incidents–departments with only that one floating ring attached to a rope and departments with fully staffed dive teams.
In its basic form, the Rescue Mat is much like a gym mat–a big gym mat. When unrolled, it’s 5 feet by 25 feet. Rolled up, it’s about 3 feet in diameter and 5 feet long. It’s simple to deploy, and at 65 lbs., it’s relatively light enough for one or two people to get it into position. (The one I had was delivered to my house, and I lugged it up and down my basement stairs a couple times–solo.) It’s made of high-quality foam and plastic, and it can hold more than 1,000 lbs. of “distributed” weight when floating.

For first responders assisting someone in the water, the mat offers a safe and sturdy platform to work from. People in trouble in the water are usually not the calmest victims; they’re usually bobbing around and flailing their arms and legs. Having a safe base to work off of is a big plus for both the rescuer and the victim.

To deploy the mat, you basically jump onto it and unroll it. I did this by tying off the exposed end of the mat and dropping it into the water. I jumped onto the tied-off end and unrolled the mat like you would unroll a fruit roll-up. It does have some memory from its rolled-up form, so as you unroll it, the two ends will curl up.

After deploying the mat several times, I found that slightly curled-up ends weren’t a problem. But to get it as flat as possible, you’ll need to unroll the mat and flip it over, which could be difficult depending on where you are when trying to deploy the mat. In shallow water, you could flip it in the water; for deep water, you would probably have to unroll it on stable ground and flip it.

Once in the water, you can move the mat toward the victim’s location. In deep water, rescuers should wear swim fins when propelling themselves and the mat through the water. I tried to move the mat without fins and it was a pretty slow and tiring ordeal. After reaching the victim, the victim can self-rescue onto the mat or be pulled onto it by rescue personnel.

The mat is useful in both calm and rough water. I’m sure folks at departments with rescue boats have witnessed the hazard of bringing someone in from the water onto their boat in rough waters. It’s difficult to coordinate and hazardous to the victim. If the boat comes off a wave the wrong way, the victim (or rescuers) could be hit. The Rescue Mat provides a nice platform from which to make the transition to the boat.

The Rescue Mat is equipped with several straps and bands for latching onto it. The straps are located on both ends of the mat. There’s no hardware or loops readily available to attach ropes to, and there are no handles for people to grab on to. To attach ropes, I used carabiners snapped onto the nylon straps at the corners. As far as handles, the nylon straps were OK to grab from in the water, but I would imagine that adding more webbing or handles wouldn’t be that big of an undertaking if you desired them. Fortunately, the thin but sturdy design makes it easy to climb onto the mat.

The mat would also be great for dive teams. Dive teams are often forced to enter the water from shore in less-than-ideal locations. Traversing jagged shores, muddy bottoms and steep approaches while weighted down with dive equipment is difficult and awkward. A Rescue Mat could be rolled out wherever divers need to enter and exit the water. After my dive, I had no problem sliding myself on to the mat fully loaded with SCUBA gear. Once on the mat, I removed my weights and other non-essential equipment, easing my exit to land.

When you’re all done using the mat, it needs to be drained before it will roll up and fit back in the case. Leaving it standing up on its side for a couple hours did the trick for me, and it had been in the water for an entire week before I tried this. While rolling your mat for storage (as opposed to rolling it up to return to the firehouse after an emergency or training), you’ll need a couple people to help get it rolled tight enough to fit inside the cover.

As far as operating instructions, the directions are very simple. The key is to get out and train with the mat. Its usefulness will become apparent right away.

The Rescue Mat is made in the USA, and as is often the case with homemade products, it isn’t cheap. I should just rip off the Band-Aid and say that it’s $2,950. This may be pricey, but I gotta say, I want one. It’s tough and useful, it’s going to last a long time, and it may be what you need to save a life someday. How much is that worth?

Rescue Mat

+ Made of high-quality materials
+ Easy to deploy
+ Minimal training required to begin use
+ Thin but sturdy design makes it easy to get onto, even if fatigued

– Expensive
– No grab handles or eyes to attach ropes to

First Alert
3901 Liberty Street
Aurora, IL 60504
Tel: 800/323-9005

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