Drownproofing Turnout Gear
For all my fireman friends...
The first step is to close your collar to keep trapped air in the coat. Do not panic or move. Next, remove the helmet and use for additional buoyancy under your arms.
Fear and ignorance are probably our two greatest enemies. When it comes to firefighters on or near the water, very often ignorance tells them that if they fall in the water with their turnout gear on they are going to drown. The fear of this supposed fact may even be a major contributor to the actual drowning process.
I wish I could cite only one water response where a firefighter drowned because he was not wearing the appropriate protective equipment. In a small town in New Jersey, a young firefighter saving the lives of flood victims accidentally fell out of his rescue vessel, and drowned almost immediately with full turnout gear strapped to his body. He was not the first and will not be the last.
Many fire departments still insist on the age-old protocol that firefighters respond to every call in full turnout gear, a measure designed to protect the firefighter. The problem is that water-related rescues require equipment very different from fire response gear. Instead of turnout gear, or at least in addition to it, firefighters should wear, at a minimum, a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Depending on the weather and environment, they may need to be encapsulated in an environmentally protective flotation suit.
But, what happens to the firefighter who responds to a fire near water and must wear turnout gear? This scenario might be a pier fire, a fire in a building close to or on the water, or simply a fire at a house with a backyard pool. What happens when a firefighter falls into a flooded basement or a flooded trench? What can a firefighter immersed in water do?
Let’s start right out with the fact that turnout equipment does not necessarily cause you to immediately drown, and in fact, if used correctly, may allow you to remain at the surface for a prolonged period of time.
With that in mind, the following guidelines can improve your chances for survival in water while wearing full turnout gear.
In all of our tests, individuals who struggled, moved quickly, lifted their hands above their faces, panicked, or kicked hard, immediately lost air from the turnout gear, making drowning inevitable.
It is very important that you trust the minimal flotation of the gear, remain calm, and move slowly. I cannot emphasize enough that moving quickly will cause a rapid loss of buoyancy and subsequent submersion. Learn how to float and relax in the water wearing a bathing suit, and then clothing. If your body is very muscular with little fat, you may be too negatively buoyant to float. In that case, seek training to learn bobbing, drownproofing techniques. Once you can calmly and comfortably float or bob, you are ready to learn how to drownproof yourself wearing turnout gear.
If your helmet is an old model made solely of leather, throw it away from you immediately upon entering the water. A leather helmet usually sinks, and if it remains on your head, it will cause a negative-buoyancy that can contribute to your drowning. Helmets produced in recent years, however, will float and have some positive buoyancy capability. Remove this helmet from your head with as little movement as possible and bring it down under your upper body, with the opening pointing downward to trap air. When used properly, a positively-buoyant helmet can keep a firefighter afloat for an indefinite period.
When you first fall in, the boots may keep your legs and feet afloat because of air trapped in them. Simply float on your back, with one hand holding your collar to keep air in your coat and the other hand holding the upside-down helmet. Do not kick, do not try to position yourself vertically. Just relax. Every movement may cause you to lose trapped air, which means losing positive buoyancy. Also, you will have very little leg strength or power for kicking with boots on. Kicking not only makes you negatively buoyant, it will greatly fatigue you.
If the boots eventually lose their trapped air, or the rest of the turnout gear loses air, and you lose positive buoyancy, it will become necessary to remove the boots. Whether in the high or low position, boots must be filled with water before they can be removed. To remove them, move your legs very slowly, wiggle your toes, and gently rotate your ankles, allowing the boots to slowly fill with water. Again, if you try to kick them off, you will become very fatigued and will lose air in the coat. Snug-fitting boots are a little more difficult to remove, therefore, you may have to gently and slowly use one foot to help ease the boot off the other foot, once the boot is filled with water.
Boots held upside-down and filled with air can provide a good amount of positive buoyancy. Fill each boot with air, and hold it upside down under each arm with the helmet held upside down at your chest. Every pint of air is equal to a pound of positive buoyancy. Think of how many pints of air two boots and a helmet can hold!
If the coat is buttoned or snapped as it should be, and its stitching has not been damaged by exposure to flash heat, it has a natural tendency to hold air.
To maintain flotation, keep your head in a forward position and gently squeeze the neck opening with your hand to prevent air from escaping through the neck. Do not place your hands above your head because that will result in air being lost through the cuffs of your sleeves. Another reason to avoid raising your arms or hands above your head is that such a posture will drive you farther underwater.
You can add a slight amount of flotation to the coat by pulling the neck piece out slightly and blowing into the left or right collar. Each breath can add several pints, and therefore, several pounds of positive buoyancy.
During our tests, hundreds of firefighters entered the water in a number of ways including jumping, falling, stumbling, and slipping. In all cases, air was trapped in the upper portion of the coat, even when the firefighter entered the water head-first. Our tests also showed that if the coat was open upon entering the water, a firefighter could grab the left and right collars to scoop air into the coat by quickly pulling the coat forward on both sides. Flotation could be enhanced by holding the neck-piece and upper part of the coat closed.
The coat may gradually leak air or somehow lose its flotation. Again, the flotation capability of the coat is directly related to the integrity of its stitching. Coats repeatedly exposed to intense heat hold air for far less time. When that loss occurs, ditch the coat.
The procedure for ditching the coat is important because if you remove it as you would on land, there is a good chance drowning could take place. If the coat is removed by dropping it down past the rear of the body, as is done on land, the chances of drowning increase. We found that the inner lining often entraps the arms low and behind the body. Once the coat is behind the body and off the shoulders, it has a significant tendency to drop below the buttocks and around the legs, thus restricting movement of the lower and upper extremities.
When removing the coat, be sure to maintain positive buoyancy and freedom of movement by following these procedures:
Open the coat slowly from the bottom up with one hand, while maintaining closure of the collar with the other hand.
Once the coat is completely opened, remove it by grabbing both bottom corners and bringing them over the top of your head, catching air in the bag portion of the coat.
There should be a pillow full of air in front of you with your arms still in the sleeves. If you didn’t catch air, then raise and lower your arms once or twice to catch and trap air in the coat. You can also blow under the coat to add more air.
Next, pull your arms slowly out of the sleeves and hold onto the buoyant pillow in front of you. You can place your helmet with air upside-down under this pillow for additional buoyancy. With practice you can land the coat on the upside-down helmet in front of your chest. Upside-down boots with trapped air can be used under each arm to provide even more flotation.
In some types of accidental immersions we tested, the pants trapped enough air to assist in flotation, but it was not a common occurrence. Pants tend to wrap around legs, and can accelerate the progression of drowning, so they should be removed when they lose flotation.
Before the bunker pants can be removed, the boots must be removed. And because of the pants’ suspenders, the coat must also be removed before the pants can be ditched.
Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus was never meant to be used underwater, especially in salt water. If it was meant to be scuba gear, it would be called SCUBA: Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. But, what should you do in the case of accidental immersion?
The first thing to do is keep the mask on your face. As long as the mask is on your face and is providing air, it is providing positive buoyancy when immersed in water. Unfortunately, the most common reflex reaction is to rip the mask off, especially when it starts to free-flow and chatter. Train to stop, think, and act - keep the mask on if it is providing air. Next, decide whether the cylinder is positively or negatively buoyant. Full cylinders may be negative, while low-on-air cylinders may float.
Test your cylinders with various psi fills
If the SCBA unit feels negatively-buoyant, then ditch it. Your instructors will teach you the best method to do this in the water. They will also teach you how to decide when it becomes necessary to ditch the unit.
Prior Training Needed
Do not assume that you will survive an accidental immersion in turnout gear without having undergone several training sessions in swimming pools. When training in a pool, use a harness with a line back to shore on all in-water safety swimmers. Work with one piece of equipment at a time: just the helmet, just the coat, and so on; test each piece for its flotation ability. For the first attempts at removing the boots and bunker pants, wear a PFD to guarantee flotation during the learning process. Position yourself near the pool slope or the side.
Training is the key. Without proper training, none of the techniques described above stand a chance of working. Understand that not all turnout gear will function in the same way. If your equipment has not been tested, you cannot rely on it. Likewise, no two water environments are the same; thus, survival in turnout gear is not guaranteed.
Review your department’s Standard Operating Procedures as they pertain to active response to water-related emergencies, especially with regard to the type of equipment specified. Note that ice rescue is also a water-related emergency, since ice has the potential for cracking and causing accidental submersion. Turnout gear does not belong on the ice. Turnout gear does not belong on shore or on boats without sufficient personal flotation devices. If a boat operation does not involve firefighting, then we strongly recommend that turnout gear not be used on a boat. Use appropriate water operation personal protective equipment.
Proper personal flotation devices, lines, harnesses, exposure suits, and so on should be available for water operations in all types of weather. Also, check with the manufacturer of your SCBA to learn proper procedures to use in case of the equipment’s submersion in water.