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How to buy rescue boats

There are a variety of features for different water conditions and rescue needs; here’s a look at how to choose your next boat

Back in 1969, an Australian lifeguard from the Avalon Surf Lifesaving Club was returning to the Land Down Under from lifeguard duties in the United Kingdom. Australia has beautiful beaches along its more than 16,000 miles of coastline, and in addition to the beauty, those beaches have a wide variety of some of the wildest surf on the planet.

That returning Aussie, Warren Mitchell, had the idea for a rescue craft that could be deployed quickly under those varying surf conditions and would be adaptable to the many different Australian beaches.

Mitchell collaborated with the Dunlop Company to create the first Inflatable Rescue Boat, which was powered by a 20-horsepower outboard motor, measured four meters in length, and set the precedence for the familiar IRB we now use today.

Fire and EMS departments and search-and-rescue crews have come to realize that these lightweight inflatable carry-in type boats are a necessity due to their go-anywhere versatility. These craft can handle most any type of conditions, from big swells in the ocean to shallow murky pools where it would be unsafe to operate a larger motorized craft.

Rigid hulls — usually constructed of fiberglass or composite materials — for IRBs provide greater stability for the craft when operating at high speeds. This is a desirable feature if your typical response calls for extended cruising to arrive at the site of the incident — say if there are only a couple of launch sites for a large lake.

Boats with non-rigid hulls — a separate air chamber functions as the hull — are usually less expensive than their rigid hull siblings, but may be less stable at cruising speeds. Non-rigid hull IRBs are lightweight, take up less storage space (when stored deflated), and can be more easily deployed on waterways lacking specific launch sites.

The market
A recent addition from BoatsToGo is their model Saturn SD487, a 16-foot roll-up inflatable boat. It has four aluminum benches for up to eight people, and two sets or oars for a tandem rowing. The SD487 is the largest all-inflatable roll-up boat on the market.

Oceanid’s Rapid Deployment Craft is 15 feet 4 inches long, 4 feet wide, and 50 pounds. The RDC has extremely rockered (upturned) ends, which enable the rescuer to drive the boat’s open end over the victim while the victim’s head remains above water at all times.

This feature also makes for a safer rescue because it allows the rescuer to reach forward into a pour-over while still safely centered in the boat. The floor is open at each end, providing two entry points — so if you miss the victim on the first pass you don’t have to turn the boat completely around.

Think about how often you arrive at a scene and cannot find a place to launch your motorized boat. The RDC stores in a two-foot cube, inflates quickly, and can be carried by one person. The most common way to carry it is deflated and stored in a rescue boat or vehicle.

DIB’s Rapid Response is a lightweight and portable IRB particularly suited for situations where access to the water is limited. The Rapid Response is 12 feet long, 6 feet wide and 90 pounds; it stores in a compact 28- x 18- x 14-inch carrying case and can be carried to the water’s edge.

Once there, it can be inflated within a few minutes using a single bottle of compressed air (80 cu. ft), such as an SCBA cylinder. The Rapid Response is equipped with a built-in pressure-relief valve to prevent over-inflation.

Rescuers can paddle the Rapid Response like a canoe or use the strap-in transom that can accommodate a 10-horsepower outboard motor. Its elevated rubber floor has four built-in foot stirrups to provide more secure seating. The boat can accommodate four rescuers.

Motorized boats
DIB also carries the Chesapeake — 17 feet 2 inches long, 7 feet 10 inches wide and 300 pound — an IRB that has nine separate air chambers to provide an added level of safety for missions in remote areas and swift water.

The boat’s twin external keels and flat planing surface enable the use of either propeller or jet-drive motors up to 80 horsepower. The Chesapeake also has an internal deck of marine alloy aluminum to provide increased structural integrity in all operational waters and greater load capacity.

The DIB Potomac Rescue Boat is 16 feet 2 inches long, 6 feet 5 inches wide and 470 pounds. It’s a heavy motorized inflatable that can be used in many applications where maneuverability, stability and durability are important.

It gets its stability from a rigid aluminum deck that both solidifies the structural integrity and provides tie down bars to better secure equipment. The Potomac has a neoprene-encased marine plywood transom reinforced by aluminum plates on both interior and exterior sides, which can accommodate either jet or propeller propulsion up to 65 horsepower.

The Rescue ONE 380 RS inflatable rescue boat is 12 feet 6 inches long and 216 pounds. It comes with five-separate air chambers each equipped with pressure relief valves. There’s a fill adapter available to enable filling from SCBA or SCUBA cylinders.

The 380 RS has a double-layer tube bottom that provides strength and stability, reflective panels for night operations, and lightweight, rigid aluminum floorboards. It is rated for up to a 30-horsepower outboard motor.

SeaWolf’s Survivor Series of inflatable boats is available in 13- 18- and 28-foot models with six to eight air compartments. It provides four-season inflatable boat capabilities that can navigate rough conditions in water and on ice. SeaWolf claims the Survivor series retains its air, regardless of weather conditions.

The Survivor series can transport motorcycles, ATVs or snowmobiles allowing you to transport to remote locations. Its rigid stability makes pulling water victims into the boat easy and stable.

The Achilles HB-300FX features a folding transom, weighs 91 pounds and offers a four-person, 1,260-pound capacity. The HB-300FX has a full-length, padded storage bag. Standard features include deep V fiberglass hull, folding fiberglass transom, full-length teardrop rubbing strake; fold-down locking oar system with oar holders, and protective transom motor-clamp plate.

The Sea Eagle SR has a rigid transom plate designed to mount an outboard motor. When powered by a 40-horsepower motor, a boat like this is capable of punching through waves even when loaded with gear or as many as seven adults.

You can opt for a steering console, which doesn’t take up a lot of deck space and can be hooked up to any outboard motor. With a center console control installed, the 14 SR becomes a true speedboat and you won’t have to sit at a tiller, your feet secured in foot straps, trying to hold on in 10-foot waves. The steering system requires professional installation.

The inflatable keel creates a V-bottom shaped hull that planes well, provides better steering control, and allows for wave jumping. A sibling model, the Sea Eagle 10.6 RIK, is a rigid inflatable keel design that comes with a high-pressure drop-stitch floor instead of floorboards. This set-up allows for faster assembly time, lighter weight and superior maneuvering.

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.