Selecting Proper PPE for Water Rescue Incidents

By Daniel DiRenzo

Incidents resulting from weather emergencies often require water rescue operations to be conducted to rescue and/or evacuate trapped occupants. Responders must wear the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) when dealing with these types of incidents. All too often we find that the correct PPE and/or water rescue suit to be worn for the situation at hand is not being used. Allowing personnel to operate in water/flood environments without the right PPE can result in severe injury or death to our members.

Fire department units find themselves dealing with vehicles in the water with occupants trapped, evacuating structures encountering rising flood waters, and other situations with water endangering the lives of civilians. Whether a rescuer is conducting a land-based rescue or operating a boat, firefighting PPE cannot be worn as it would be to other incidents because this ensemble is not designed for these types of incident responses.

If departments determine that they may have to deal with water or flood situations, they should equip themselves with the required PPE to mitigate these situations. If a department finds itself responding to a water-related incident it did not anticipate, it must request water-rescue-equipped units immediately.

Determining what water rescue PPE to purchase depends on a department’s immediate response local. Does the response local contain still waterways such as lakes or ponds; tidal water ways such as creeks, rivers, or oceans, or does it have known flood prone areas? Knowing that these areas lay within your response local will assist with determining what level or type of PPE will be needed for your department.

Start with the Basics
The standard compliment of water rescue PPE used for basic surface water rescue operations is a good starting point for a majority of departments and can encompass various types of situations involving still water, tidal water, and flood emergencies. We often find that departments use their ice rescue equipment as a baseline for water rescue PPE selection. Ice rescue PPE is not as multifunctional as basic surface water rescue PPE. Basic surface water rescue PPE can be used during any season whereas ice rescue PPE is dependent on the time of year.

Basic surface water rescue PPE includes a water rescue dry suit, personal floatation device (PFD), helmet, gloves, boots, and throw bags. This is a starting point to outfit rescuers for water rescue incident responses. Departments can add additional items depending on departments’ response areas.

What Season?
The time of year is important when it comes to specific water rescue suit selections. Cold water rescue operations occur during the winter months when waterways have been partially or completely frozen. This time of year requires use of an ice rescue suit designed for these parameters. The same waterway in other seasonal months can present a totally different scenario to rescuers, requiring totally different water rescue equipment.

When dealing with open water or flood waters, do not take an ice rescue approach to PPE. Now you are dealing with an area that is unstable and rescuers could be submerged under water. A surface water dry suit that would be used for open water rescue operations can be used for ice rescue situations, but an ice rescue suit would not be the best decision for open water incidents. The ice rescue dry suit is an all-in-one suit with the gloves and boots attached, which is why departments like to purchase them. A surface water dry suit requires separate gloves and boots.

The major difference between the two suits is the neck seal. The neck seal for surface water rescue prevents any water from entering the suit; the ice rescue suit allows water through the neck, so water will fill the suit. You can adapt the surface water rescue suit to work for ice and open water in cold weather environments. By equipping the surface water rescuer with a cold water hood, you can now send that rescuer into ice or cold water situations. Remember, once the ice breaks underneath the weight of the rescuer, you now have an open water rescue situation.

Start with the Dry Suit
The water rescuer dry suit is the major component of the water rescuer ensemble. Additional accessory items to purchase include the PFD, helmet, gloves, and boots. Purchasing a PFD for water rescuer operations is slightly different than the PFDs purchased for rescuers operating exclusively in boats. PFDs for water rescuers should allow for mobility and must have a “blow-out” device for when the rescuer is attached to a rope needs to break free from the tether line. The helmet should be specifically designed to be worn in water rescue situations. Gloves and boots range in size, and the best way to outfit as many of your rescuers as possible is to purchase the average size worn by your members.

Departments only need to purchase a few suits, PFDs, and helmets—a minimum of two to four suits is average for most departments. When it comes to the gloves and boots, purchase a the average sizes and keep them in separate bags. All members that have been trained to operate in water rescue PPE should be presized. Once presized, the rescuer should know his suit, helmet, boot, and glove sizes. Or, the department can maintain a sizing list with the equipment. Keep the water rescuer PPE suit in an easily accessible area because these types of responses often require rapid deployment.

PPE Only One Part
Equipping your rescuers with the proper water rescue PPE is only part of preparing for water rescue incident responses. Departments must offer training, and members must complete the training prior to operating in or near the water. After attending the training, members will be better able to select the required PPE for water rescue. Establish and follow standard operating guidelines for water rescue. These types of incidents cannot be taken lightly—water is just as dangerous to us as fire. Weather-related events that cause these incidents will continue, and we must be able to handle them in the safest and most efficient manner possible. Take the smart approach—don’t place your members at risk without the proper PPE to complete their task.

is a lieutenant with the Cherry Hill (NJ) Fire Department, assigned to the Field Command Office. He is also a lieutenant/department training officer with the Bellmawr (NJ) Fire Department and a rescue specialist with New Jersey USAR Task Force 1. He is the managing member of Safety & Survival Training, LLC. He has been featured in Fire Engineering’s “Training Minutes” on personal harness use on

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