Equipment failures are preventable, but can be costly and fatal...Know what you’re buying, buy what you know.
Your Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is one of the most important pieces of equipment you will need. There are so many types to choose from. You need to decide which operations you will be involved in to make a good decision.
For instance, if you will only be involved with boat recovery and dragging operations, then your PFD needs to be able to keep you afloat and be comfortable. You will not need extra pockets or attachment points, but perhaps some mesh construction to keep you cooler in the Summer. On the other hand, if you are involved in swiftwater operations, you need a PFD that will keep you up in fast moving water, offer you protection, and have the pockets and attachments for such things as lights, caribiners, whistle, knives, and other items you may want to carry.
You also want the PFD to fit good and snug so it does not ride up on your neck when you are in the water. One of the best PFDs on the market is the rescue vest from Stearns. It offers a good fit, excellent flotation, and pockets for equipment. Another good PFD is the Force 6. This vest also offers good flotation and pockets for equipment. Always wear a proper fitting PFD for your safety.
Your next consideration would be a helmet. Of course for water recovery, a helmet would not be necessary. Swiftwater operations would be a different story. As with most equipment, there are several good helmets on the market. We like using the Pro-Tec Ace helmets, they offer a comfortable fit, good ventilation and drainage, along with a reasonable cost. The Pro-Tec Wake helmet is the same helmet with additional ear protection. Another popular helmet is the Cascade water helmet. The main thing to remember is to buy a helmet that gives you adequate head protection and has good ventilation and drainage. Also, it is important to make sure your helmet fits correctly. If it doesn’t stay on your head, it will not do you much good.
Your body protection is another big thing to consider. In waters with temperatures even in the 70s, you should consider a wetsuit to help maintain thermal body heat. With prolonged exposures in waters less than 85 degrees, you can loose precious body heat.
For the warmer waters a shorty suit should be adequate. In slightly cooler water you may want to go to a full suit. You should consider a drysuit for water temperatures less than 70 degrees. These are swiftwater drysuits not to be confused with scuba diving drysuits. They are less expensive and most would seep water if you dove with them.
Stearns has several good swiftwater drysuits on the market, one that utilizes an air relief valve and one that does not. There are numerous other companies with very good suits. As with your PFD and helmet, a drysuit should fit you well. You do not want it too tight that you do not have the flexibility to swim or perform rescues, or too big that it will also restrict your movements. Shop around and get what works for you.
You need to consider a good water boot and gloves next. I think gloves are more of a personal preference, as there a lot of water sport gloves on the market that work well for water rescue operations. Now when it comes to boots, I like the OTB water boots. These boots give you a solid sole with tread for walking and navigating on rocks. The boot offers a drainage system that allows the water to drain from the boot when you come out of the water. The boot has a comfortable fit and it is constructed of durable materials. You need to have a good fitting boot that will stay on your foot and not stress your feet when you have to wear them for a long time. These boots are good for swiftwater and recovery operations.
Your accessories should include a few minimal items and some will be personal preferences. You need a good whistle with no ball inside, such as the Fox 40. You should have a knife secured in a sheath. Some rescuers like the pointed tip while others prefer the blunt tip. Another consideration along the lines of the knife is a pair of bandage or EMS shears. Next you want to have several aluminum carabiners. The controversy here is whether they should be locking or non-locking. I have heard pros and cons on both, and I prefer the non-locking, but that is a decision you would need to make. A couple of prussik or accessories cords are needed as well. You want a good waterproof flashlight that is relatively small but powerful and a waterproof strobe. These are the basic items you may need, but by no means is this inclusive. You may want to add other items to your PFD as well.
With the coming of the “season” you need to be prepared if you are in the business of responding to water rescue operations. If you already have equipment, make sure you take the time to check everything before you get called on a rescue and are not sure whether your gear will be up to par or not. Equipment failures are preventable, but can be costly and fatal.
The old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” holds very true in this situation. Know what you’re buying, buy what you know. Stay safe and if you have questions or comments, feel free to contact me.