The PPE & Skills Involved in Water Rescue

Consider this scenario: You’re the battalion chief on duty during a summer afternoon, and you’re dispatched to a call involving a “car in the river with possible victim trapped.” As is most often the case, the address is vague; all you know is that the location is somewhere along the river road. You direct units to respond north and south of the suspected area and await reports.

Soon, police units locate a victim and the accident location. Your units arrive on scene ahead of you. Upon your arrival, you find an injured, agitated male screaming that his buddy is still trapped inside the car. There are muddy tire tracks on the soft surface of the road, and the hillside is scarred where a vehicle has left the roadway and rolled into the dark, dank river.

Your personnel are scattered along the bank, and then you spot something that makes you take a breath: There’s a firefighter on shore holding a rope that trails off into the water. There are several pairs of black, fire department-issued duty boots on the bank and a light-blue uniform shirt worn by your department members alongside the boots. You quickly size up the scene and realize that you have personnel in the water, under water, attempting to rescue the trapped victim from the car. How many of your personnel are in the water? What’s the plan? Is there a back-up plan? Are these crews trained in water-rescue operations?

Does this sound familiar? Of course it does. Does your agency have bodies of water, still or moving, in its area? Does your area flood? Does your agency have standard operating guidelines (SOGs) that discuss appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and initial actions for first-in companies?

In this article, I’ll discuss some basic water-rescue techniques, PPE and drills that you can perform at the firehouse to prepare for water-rescue response.

Plan for the Worst
Regardless of what type of rescue techniques and equipment your agency employs, at minimum you should have a properly fitted personal flotation device (PFD). There are many types of PFDs out there; however, fire/rescue personnel should use a Type III Coast Guard-approved PFD.  

Federal, state and agency standards and policies require that all personnel don a PFD when they’re 15—25 feet from the shoreline. Though firefighters often think this is overkill, you should make it a habit to don a PFD so that when someone steps where they shouldn’t and/or attempts to help transfer a victim from the water to the shore, they’re wearing the proper flotation device.

The PFD only works if it stays on the user, so always use all straps, buckles and zippers. The silly leg straps that always dangle from the bottom of the PFD are a hassle–until you’re in the water in an ill-fitting PFD that’s riding up past your ears. And if worn properly, the PFD not only provides flotation, it also reduces heat loss, both on shore and when in the water (if it’s worn snugly). The point: Use the leg straps to secure the PFD.

Rescue models of PFDs, labeled “Class V” PFDs, may come with additional flotation elements, pockets, gear attachment points and a quick-release belt and tether. If your agency uses these types of PFDs, be sure all personnel are familiar with the quick-release belt feature (also called a blow-out belt).

All PFDs should have a whistle attached, and all PFDs worn for water-based rescue attempts should be equipped with a knife and strobe light or light stick. The lighting allows responders on shore to keep track of rescuers in the water in low-light conditions. It sounds simple, but it can be difficult to keep track of personnel in the dark on the water/ice.

When not in use, store PFDs where they’re easily accessible and out of direct sunlight, as direct sunlight will break down the nylon cover in as little as a year.

Note: PFDs come in odd sizes. Although I’m a size medium kind of guy, I wear a Stearns XXXL PFD. Obviously, they run a bit small, so make sure you know the range of sizes for the model of PFD you want to purchase. Also determine whether one size will fit all of your personnel, or if you need to purchase several sizes. Tip: If you purchase several sizes, label them on the outside so that the size is easy for the user to see prior to donning.

An interesting fact about PFDs: Most people who drown aren’t wearing a PFD. But most people who drown never planned on being in the water in the first place. We are professionals, so we must plan for the worst-case scenario.

Assess & Train
If you haven’t done so already, perform a hazard assessment on the types of bodies of water you have in your response area and the situations in which you may encounter victims. If there’s a known, accessible waterfall in your first-due area, you’ll want to pre-plan rescue ops in that area.

If you have no response plan, training or equipment, start small. Provide your personnel with awareness-level training. What are the hazards to the responders? Address those hazards in your training outline. Use NFPA 1670: Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents, and NFPA 1006: Standard for Technical Rescuer Professional Qualifications as guidelines for putting together an outline.

Also provide appropriate PFDs, making sure they’re available inside the apparatus, and that all personnel know how to don them and buckle them up. Often there are plastic tabs still attached that inhibit the ability to extend the straps to their longest position, which makes it impossible for the user to zip and/or buckle. These tabs are intended to keep the excess straps from flopping around. I would cut them off the straps.

Reach Tools
Which tools do you presently carry on your apparatus that can assist with shore-based rescue attempts? One basic tool we use is the pike pole. Rubbish and ceiling hooks are carried on nearly all apparatus. When a D handle isn’t on the user’s end of a pole, carefully pass the hook end to the victim. It’s easier for the rescuer to maintain a grip on the shaft than a terrified, exhausted victim. Tip: Apply a few strips of grippy adhesive tape to the lower portion of the shaft to help the user to hold onto the tool.

The hose inflation technique is another very effective tool. To utilize it, inflate up to three lengths of 2 ½” fire hose with air and lash a toss-ring to the end. Maneuver it onto water (or ice) by twisting the fire hose. The twisting motion makes the toss-ring rotate like a paddle wheel in either direction. We’ve used this technique to provide flotation for as many as 12 people at once.

Tip: Be sure to lash the hose securely to the ring. If the hose can’t turn independently of the toss-ring, you won’t be able to move the hose from side to side. Also, don’t allow the hose to pass the toss-ring when securing it to the ring. This will assist with deployment and decrease the potential for lost teeth on the port cap on the end of the hose.

Water-Rescue Drills
Below are some water rescue drills that you can perform in or out of the fire station and without being next to a body of water or relying on another company.

Initial-Arrival Drill: Donning PFDs
How long does it take, after you arrive on scene, for all of your crewmembers to completely don their PFDs? Start at the beginning, with participants in their standard PPE, and instruct them to don their PFDs completely. Record the amount of time it takes the entire group to get completely buckled and zipped up. Repeat this drill a few times to see whether they can decrease their time, and if so, by how much.

Throw-Bag Drill
How long does it take to locate the throw-bag on the apparatus and make two attempts to throw it to a potential victim? For this drill, instruct one crewmember (the thrower) to stand in place while another crewmember (the victim) positions themselves 30 or 40 feet away, with their arms raised over their head. The thrower should then attempt to throw the bag/line over the victim’s head and between their arms.

After a few attempts, instruct the victim to move farther away. Note: The victim should try to grab the rope and turn away from the shore so that the rope travels over their shoulder. They should also grip the rope at chest or waist level so they can hold the rope without getting water in their mouth.

For units that respond to incidents in moving water, instruct the victim to walk or jog past the thrower. This forces the thrower to time their throw to the victim. Tip: If possible, always throw behind (or slightly downstream of) the victim, because it’s much easier to swim downstream than it is to swim upstream.

In moving water, rescuers must realize that if and when the line goes taut, they’ll need to feed the line some slack to prevent the victim from going underwater, depending on the speed of the water. Slack is given by moving downstream and/or allowing the line to pay out. Slight tension will vector the victim toward shore.

Hose Inflation Technique Drill
How long does it take a two-person crew to deploy 150 feet of 2 ½” fire hose filled with air? How long does it take a three-person crew? Tip: With pre-assigned position assignments, you can greatly reduce deployment time.

To perform this drill, break up into two-person crews, then record how long it takes each crew to deploy the line and gather it up when finished. The steps are: Pull 150 feet of a pre-connected 2 ½” handline, remove the nozzle, install the female cap, grab the spanners and stretch the line to the incident. After tightening the cap with the spanners, work your way back to the end of the hose where your partner should have left the airbag regulator and other equipment. You can now hook up the pneumatic fittings and fill the hose with air. Your partner should then bring the toss-ring with webbing to the other end and secure it to the fire hose. How much air is enough? The hose should not depress when you step on it.

Repeat with three-person crews. Compare the times from the first rotation with the times from the fourth or final rotation to see how much you’ve improved. If you’re having trouble, make position assignments and see whether that helps reduce your time.

Master the above skills and you’ll be ready to perform shore-based rescue techniques in an organized manner.

So What Happened?
What happened with the car in the river with the possible victim trapped? The car was located on its side in approximately 12—14 feet of water. Three firefighters made surface dives. One firefighter entered the car and pushed the unconscious victim in front of him. Another firefighter had a rope around his waist and grabbed the victim. All three firefighters in the water supported the victim while crewmembers on the riverbank pulled everyone to shore.

Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compressions were started as paramedics brought their equipment down to the river’s edge, where the patient was intubated. The patient was secured to a backboard and Stokes basket. The aerial ladder helped bring the Stokes basket up to the roadway. The patient began to breathe on his own and was taken to a nearby trauma center where he lived for a few days and then passed away.

Lessons Learned
Many times, we need to step back and do a risk/benefit analysis of the incident facing us. How would the incident described get scored on the risk/benefit scale? Not very well. It involved far too much risk; lack of training and poor or rushed judgment could’ve resulted in much more than the loss of the driver of that car.

Did I mention that the three firefighters who went into the water were in their 20s? Twenty-something firefighters didn’t always do a risk/benefit analysis 25 years ago. (It would be 18 years before I could go more than 8 feet underwater again. I learned how to do that in a diving class.)

Note: Today, the department involved in that rescue has a dedicated, well-trained and well-equipped water-rescue team.

Spring is here. Be careful out there.

Water-Rescue Dos and Don’ts

  • Instruct all personnel to don appropriate PPE;
  • Call for additional resources early;
  • Have SOGs in place for the specific types of incidents you’ll encounter;
  • Use upstream spotters when working near moving water;
  •  Use downstream spotters, trained and equipped with throw bags, when working near moving water; and
  • Use extreme caution when working in flooded areas.


  • Allow personnel to enter the water without appropriate PPE and training;
  • Tie a rope to anyone entering or working in moving water, unless they’re attached to a quick-release belt designed for water-rescue use, and the person is trained to use that technique; and
  • Underestimate the power of and hazards associated with moving water.

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