In the event a firefighter suddenly and unexpectedly falls into deep water while wearing full turnout gear, the firefighter's survival is dependent upon the immediate actions taken during the first critical seconds of immersion. The potential for this type of emergency always exists when firefighters are fighting apartment or other structure fires around a swimming pool; during suppression activities on and around piers and docks; as well as in the event of a fall-through incident in which the firefighter falls through a floor into a basement filled with water.
As soon as the firefighter hits the water, his/her turnout gear will immediately trap air which rapidly floats the firefighter to the surface of the water. As soon as the firefighter reaches the surface, he should immediately assume a horizontal position on his back (supine position), by kicking his feet out in front of him.
This procedure is contrary to the firefighter's natural instinct which would cause him to attempt to go vertical in the water. However, if the firefighter assumes a vertical position while in the water, the trapped air in the firefighter's turnout gear will escape through the neck of the turnout coat causing him to lose buoyancy and putting him at risk of sinking under the water's surface.
Therefore, firefighters need the opportunity to practice this procedure under controlled conditions until they are comfortable in doing so, and the appropriate behavior of assuming a supine position in the water becomes an automatic response.
The firefighter will float in a prone (on his front) position as well. Whether the firefighter assumes a prone or supine horizontal position should be dependent upon the comfort level of the firefighter. However, it is this author's position that if the firefighter is wearing SCBA, as he would during structural firefighting/suppression activities, it is safer and more comfortable for the firefighter to assume a supine horizontal position. It is our hope that this article and the supporting photographs will clarify this position.
Wearing full turnout gear with SCBA increases the weight of a firefighter by approximately 60 lbs. When the turnout gear is wet, approximately 40 lbs. of additional weight is added as a result of the absorbed water into the pockets and lining of the turnout gear. Yet, even with the additional 100 lbs. of weight, after the firefighter falls into the water, he will immediately float to the surface as a result of the trapped air inside his turnout gear. The firefighter can safely maintain his buoyancy in the water while working his way to safety or until he can be rescued by other firefighters.
Once immersed, the SCBA will automatically free-flow air. Due to the positive pressure in the air mask, as long as the seal has not been compromised, the firefighter can continue to breathe with the mask in place.
Immediately after falling into the water, the firefighter needs to assume a horizontal position in the water. If he attempts to get vertical, all the trapped air will escape from the neck and arms of the turnout coat and the firefighter will immediately lose his buoyancy. While maintaining a horizontal position in the water, the firefighter should use only underwater arm movements to progress himself to safety. Overarm movements will again result in losing air from the turnout coat, and the weight of the arms will lead to exhaustion of the firefighter.
The firefighter's turnout gear can assist him in staying afloat. The firefighter's helmet can be used to trap air and when placed over the hips, will help to elevate the firefighter's hips in the water.
If the firefighter is wearing rubber pull-on boots, he can remove one, or both boots, empty the water from them, and then invert them to trap air. The trapped air inside the boot provides sufficient buoyancy to keep the firefighter afloat.