Turnout Gear & Water are a Deadly Mixture!


Turnouts & water = a deadly combination

While reading reports on flood water rescues this morning I saw this photo of several firefighters involved in an Alabama flood rescue.
My heart sank and I cringed as I looked at the photo because, as a rescue instructor and certified PADI diver, I spent much of my career advising firefighters and EMS personnel assigned turnout gear – NOT to ever wear it in water.
The reason – it acts like a massive sponge and, worse yet, a deadly anchor that can quickly fill with water, sweep a rescuer away and result in their rapid drowning / death.
I do not write this entry to criticize the Alabama firefighters or any others who instinctively wear their assigned “protective gear” in a water rescue, but to educate and keep them – and other – alive in similar circumstances.
In a very poignant article on FIREFIGHTERCLOSECALLS.com in 2014 (NEVER WEAR BUNKER GEAR ON A WATER RESCUE), http://www.firefighterclosecalls.com/news/fullstory/newsid/200639 – Ouray County Colorado EMS Chief Norm Rooker (Ret.), made some very poignant comments on a discussion posting on LinkedIn, What Keeps You Up at Night?, stating what most Chiefs and Instructors know and teach their rescuers:
“… the unintended consequence of this expense and training [with assigned turnout gear] is that our firefighters, both paid and volunteer, will wear their “suit of armor” for every response, not just fire suppression.  The result is that we see over and over again firefighters responding to flood emergencies wearing bunker gear.  The very equipment designed to keep a firefighter alive in a structure fire, will the vast majority of the time kill him or her in the water environment, especially moving water.”
He notes that “bunker pants act as sea anchors in moving water” and refers readers to changes the Denver FD made to their SOGs after the events of the August 17, 2000 when an emergency response to a flash flood resulted in the loss of life of a firefighter who was swept down a storm drain while attempting to rescue a woman being swept in down a city street in knee deep water.  The FF was wearing bunker gear and was swept off his feet by the swift moving current.
He points out, as I often do, that we should our firefighters out in duty uniforms, not turnout gear when responding to water emergencies as a minimum and refers readers to video clips by agencies that show fire fighter in water, protected by experienced swimmers and members of their department’s dive rescue team, that  showed that WITHIN A MINUTE that experienced water rescuer was pulled under by his equipment when he attempted to swim across a swimming pool and, if it were not for the presence of a rescue swimmer, that firefighter and highly trained swimmer would have lost his life.
See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7UK4xo9WrM
Norm points out that bunker gear will hold a significant amount of air and keep a wearer afloat if they fall into STILL water wearing it and quickly roll over onto their back with a minimum of movement. However if they flounder, flail or attempt to swim while wearing bunker gear, they will quickly dispel all of the air, thus losing buoyancy and will be pulled under by their “protective” gear. He refers readers to two respected departments (Denver FD and the Charlotte NC FD) who have correctly changed their SOGs regarding wearing turnout gear in or near water.
In addition, the firefighterclosecalls.com column points out that water rescues, especially swift water rescue, “require specialized training and equipment to be done safely, effectively, and efficiently.”  It goes on to point out that, “in addition to “ditching” the structural PPE on water responses, every fire company should have a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type III or higher Personal Floatation Device (PFD) available for each member of the responding crew. The donning of the PFD before entering the hazard area should be akin to donning your structural PPE at a structure fire: No PFD, No access.
Stay safe, read these important points and pass them along to your personnel and CHANGE your response and protective gear SOGs ASAP!




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