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How to buy cold-water rescue suits

When you’re wading into icy water to rescue a victim is not the time to wonder if you bought the best exposure suit


To avoid becoming victims themselves, firefighters need the proper protective equipment when conducting cold-water or ice rescues. The right PPE will guard against hypothermia and keep rescuers afloat.

Cold can be a misunderstood variable. The Coast Guard Marine Safety Program defines cold water to mean water where the monthly mean low temperature is normally 59º F (15º C) or less.

Remember, water conducts heat away from the human body 25 times faster than air. We lose heat at the same rate in air with a temperature of 42º F (6º C) as we do in water that’s at 80º F (27º C).

Even surface rescue personnel must be prepared for unusually long operations and atypical weather conditions if they are to avoid developing hypothermia. And this problem is as old as mankind.

The ancestor of exposure suits was invented in 1872 by Gunnar Guddal of Seattle to rescue steamship passengers. Guddal’s creation used rubber sheeting and was essentially a pair of rubber pants and shirt cinched tight at the waist.

Within the suit were five air pockets the wearer could inflate by mouth through hoses. Similar to modern-day dry suits, the suit also kept its wearer relatively dry and enabled him to float on his back.

Today’s Gumby
Today’s exposure suits are the necessary level of PPE for diver-certified personnel as well as non-divers when conducting cold-water or ice rescues. They protect the user from body heat loss due to contact with cold water and serve as a personal floatation device.

Exposure suits are sized by a range of body sizes and weights so that individuals of different shapes and sizes can wear the same suit. It’s a useful variation on the “one-size fits all” concept. For example, an adult exposure suit can have a height range of 4 feet 11 inches to 6 feet 3 inches and a weight range of 110 to 220 pounds.

Exposure suits are normally made of red or bright fluorescent orange or yellow fire-retardant neoprene. Neoprene, a synthetic rubber closed-cell foam, contains a multitude of tiny air bubbles making it sufficiently buoyant to serve as a personal flotation device.

The seams of a neoprene suit are sewn and taped to seal out the cold water, and have strips of SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) specified retro-reflective tape on the arms, legs and head to make the wearer visible at night.

When choosing an exposure suit, the first question to ask is what kind of water do you need protection from. Will the water be contaminated, cold, full of debris, moving or a combination of these variables?

The next decision has to be what do you need the suit for. Will it be for cold-water rescue, swift-water operations, surf rescue, boat or personal watercraft operations, or surface ice rescue? Other questions to ask include:

  • What are the department’s budget constraints?
  • How many suits and what size ranges will be needed for a typical rescue response?
  • How often will the suits be used?

Features to look for
For starters, make sure that any suit considered for purchase is U.S. Coast Gaurd 161.071 approved and SOLAS compliant. After that, look for a suit that has these features.

Suits should be made of 5 mm neoprene and one-piece, sealed construction. It must be inherently buoyant. That means that it is capable of keeping the user afloat even if it becomes filled with water from a leak or tear.

Look for a snug-fitting face seal that is flexible, comfortable and prevents water entry in the event of a submersion. Dual-zipper pull tabs make for easier and quicker donning.

Likewise, three-fingered mitts allow for easier donning, keep the fingers warmer and serve as paddles for better movement in the water. Easily accessible pockets, preferably on the sleeves, are needed to carry self-rescue devices like ice claws.

Wide legs offer easier donning, particularly when the user is wearing duty boots. Look for a suit that has vents in the bottom of the legs that allow air trapped in the legs to escape; this will keep the legs from floating to the surface and interfering with operations.

Look for an inflatable high-rider ring for additional freeboard and buoyancy — keeping the rescuer in a more upright position. A detachable high-rider ring can be replaced without having to condemn the entire suit.

It must have an attachment point on back of suit for securing a lifeline to the user. Attached safety whistle for use during night operations or in high-noise environments such as swift-water rescues is also useful.

Finally, a sturdy storage bag with handles aids quick retrieval and donning of suit. It also protects the suit from what may be long periods of storage between uses.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.