Firefighter Survival Skills for the Aquatic Environment

For the most part, one thing that all fire departments have in common is that we respond to scenes where water could become a hazard to our health. Whether you live in a coastal community where you may deal with the ocean or an inland community where rivers and streams might be present, water in some form or another will always be around. Knowing that the above statement is true, we all need to be aware of how to deal with a water related emergency that may occur while we are mitigating a fire related incident.

Some situations where a sudden or unexpected immersion may occur are as follows:

  • Fire suppression near a swimming pool, retention pond or lake
  • Fire suppression at a marina
  • Fire suppression near piers or docks
  • Fire suppression at commercial or residential structures with pools
  • Fire suppression activities in which the firefighter falls through a floor into a basement or elevator shaft filled with water

So have you ever asked yourself, what would actually happen if I fell in deep water in full turnout gear and SCBA? Will I sink like a rock? Will I float? Will my SCBA still function? How much additional weight does water add to turnout gear? Will my "steel toe" boots fill with water and drag me to the bottom?

St. Johns County Fire Rescue's Marine Rescue section recently put together a training program for all fire rescue personnel. The training allowed firefighters to practice critical survival skills in the aquatic environment. The training was developed and taught by Marine Rescue Section Chief Dave Williams and Marine Rescue Training Captain Zac Cover.

The first part of the training was pretty simple; the training section put together a DVD for firefighters to watch at the station that taught basic water safety and incident management for water related incidents. No problem, but as part two of the training came around, firefighters quickly learned that things would not be quite so simple.

Firefighters arrived at area pools in their respective districts, and were instructed to gear-up in full turnout and SCBA (training gear and SCBA were used). Once in full gear marine rescue officers instructed the firefighters to step into the deep end of the pool. You can probably imagine some of the responses to this request. Not to worry though, trained water rescue personnel were on scene in the event an emergency were to occur. Firefighters made entry into the water, might I add rather skeptically, and many were quite surprised. Instead of sinking like a rock to the bottom, they ended up floating like a navigational buoy. Some were even more surprised that the SCBA on their back would still function and provide them with breathable air. After this initial plunge, firefighters were given time to practice critical skills needed to survive a deep water immersion of this type.

According to Chief Williams, "Survival is dependent upon the actions taken during the first critical seconds of the immersion."

So now that you know a little about the training we completed, what did we learn about our gear thanks to this training? How will your turnout gear function in a full immersion situation?

  • Initially, your gear and SCBA will add approximately 60lbs of dry weight to the firefighter; submersion in water will add an additional 40lbs of absorbed weight in the pockets and liner.
  • Fortunately, the close-woven materials that most gear is made from holds trapped air when wet.
  • Fire boots and many helmets also trap air and can aid in floatation.

Well, now we know how your turnout gear will function in water, what about your positive pressure open circuit breathing apparatus (SCBA)?

  • A fully submerged positive pressure SCBA will automatically free-flow air due to the positive pressure in the mask, so long as the seal has not been compromised. Therefore, the firefighter can continue to breathe with the mask in place and the regulator attached.
  • The SCBA will function normally as long as the mask stays above the surface of the water.

Okay, so now you know how the gear and SCBA will function, but the question still remains, how can you continue to stay afloat?

  • Relaxation is the key to floatation. A panicked, struggling or vertical firefighter will tire easily and sink quickly.
  • Following immersion, the firefighter will immediately float to the surface as a result of the trapped air within the turnout gear.
  • Once at the surface, the firefighter should assume a horizontal position in the water to prevent air from escaping through the neck, arms, waist and boots. The supine position with the toes near the surface is generally considered safer and most comfortable.
  • The firefighter should only use underwater arm movements (sculling) to maneuver themselves to safety. Above the water movements will allow air to escape, allow cold water to rush in and lead to exhaustion from the weight of the water soaked gear.
  • Should the firefighter find it difficult to maintain the desired horizontal position, begin to sink or have a need for additional floatation, pull on boots can be removed, emptied of water and inverted to trap air. When placed under the arms, the trapped air inside the boots will provide sufficient buoyancy to keep the firefighter afloat.
  • Additional air can be added to the coat by splashing air into it with the palm of the hand. This is accomplished by releasing the SCBA waist straps, holding the coattail just under the surface with one hand, while the other hand strikes downward from above the surface of the water in rapid succession. The air carried downward will bubble into the coat causing inflation. Repeat as necessary.

As we have already established, water is something that we as firefighters are going to constantly encounter, so as it relates to Incident Management, fire department or rescue operations that occur near a body of water should provide for the designation of at least one fully trained and equipped water safety officer specifically to address firefighter safety should an unexpected immersion occur.

As you know, one of the keys to performing our job safely is constant training and repetition. It is also very important that we know the boundaries and limitations of our firefighting equipment. Prior to this training, I am sure not everyone knew all the answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this story, but after going through it, we will definitely have a better understanding of what to do and feel much more relaxed and comfortable should we find ourselves in a unexpected immersion while performing fire suppression activities.