By Andy Speier

The cold-weather months are fast approaching. If your response area includes a body of water that freezes over when the temperature drops, you need to be fully prepared to perform a water/ice-based rescue. Below, I provide information on some of the primary equipment and PPE you’ll need if and when you need to enter the water or break through the ice to save a life.

Rescue Tech Tom Keene is ready to go. His retrieval system is pre-connected to the front of his harness. Ice awls are in his hands. His partner is preparing an inflatable river board to be used as an adjunct tool to assist with victim movement on the ice. A line tender will manage his rope as it pays out. Tom is also wearing a welded nylon outer shell modular suit with attached booties and gloves, as well as a PFD. Photo courtesy Andy Speier

Rescue Team members review the use and benefits of a collapsible ice sled. Unlike a boat, one can walk in the center of the sled, and if the ice breaks, they can hold onto the rails to the stay afloat as their weight is distributed by the large footprint. Photo courtesy Rob Fisher

A backboard is passed to a "victim" during training to help them climb back up onto the ice. The backboard will distribute their weight better and they can be pulled across the ice. Important: This is not how you would approach a victim. The crews were experimenting with ice strength and how close they could get to the broken ice. Always approach a victim from the side and stay low. Crawl or roll out to them. Note: The rescuer is wearing a nylon dry suit with attached booties and separate neoprene drysuit gloves. In addition, he is wearing a rescue PFD with a blow-out belt. Photo courtesy Leslie Hynes

Cold-Water Rescue Suits
There are several types of cold-water suits available. Based upon how your agency responds to calls, the types of incidents you respond to and the cost incurred by purchasing the number of suits needed, you can select the one that best fits your agency’s needs.

Closed Neoprene Suit
This is essentially an exposure suit that has rubber booties instead of over-the-boot bottoms. The integrated gloves are made of closed neoprene as well. Other features can include an integrated chest harness, reflective stripes and a tight-fitting hood. The suits are easy to care for: Lube the zipper with wax periodically; use Aquaseal to repair leaks as they occur; and dry well after use to prevent odor.

Welded Nylon Outer Shell Modular Suit
This style of ice rescue suit is 45% lighter than the closed neoprene model and comes with a removable, replaceable closed neoprene liner, integrated boots and gloves, which are insulated and made of rubber. Like the closed neoprene suit, the modular suit also features an integrated chest harness, reflective stripes and a hood; however, it also comes with additional features, such as a pocket for a set of ice awls and straps to cinch the legs.

Note: Due to their positive buoyancy, neither the closed-neoprene suit nor the welded-nylon outer shell suit requires the user to wear a personal floatation device (PFD), but I recommend wearing one regardless of the suit you wear.

Nylon Dry Suit
When worn in conjunction with one- or two-piece fleece clothing, this suit can keep a rescuer warm in the water/ice. Although it’s not as easy to don as the closed neoprene or modular suits, it is comfortable to wear during training, as it’s lightweight and instructors can remove the gloves easily. Attached booties are size specific, and a separate glove needs to be purchased.

Although there’s some positive buoyancy, a PFD must be worn. A blow-out belt or a chest harness will also be needed to connect the retrieval line. Dry suits generally have less abrasion resistance, so if the suit tears or gets a hole in it, you may be unable to keep yourself on the surface without a PFD.

Note: If you forget to zip the suit all the way up, don’t worry; you won’t be the first person to have done so. Have a buddy check you prior to entering the water/ice.

Personal Floatation Device
There are many types of PFDs out there that provide floatation and reduce heat loss both on shore and in the water (if worn snugly). For fire and rescue service personnel, a Type III PFD or Coast Guard approved “float coat” or coveralls are appropriate. But these items only work if they stay on the user, so be sure to use all straps (including leg straps), buckles and zippers. If you don a PFD, do so as if you plan to be in the water. There’s no point in wearing a PFD that’s unbuckled or unzipped.

All PFDs should have a whistle attached. All PFDs to be worn for ice/water-based rescue attempts should be equipped with a knife and a strobe light or light stick, which allows responders on shore to keep track of the rescuers in the dark. It sounds simple, but it can be difficult to keep track of personnel in the dark on the water/ice.

Rescue Gear
Retrieval system: The basic system consists of 200 feet of 10-mm (or larger) floating rope with a locking carabiner on the end and a large non-locking carabiner attached approximately 18 inches behind the locking carabiner. Store the system in a double-end mesh or partially mesh bag so that it will drain itself after use. (It still needs to be hung to dry.)

Peterson tube: This foam tube with a lanyard and sling is great for helping to keep a victim afloat. Tip: Unlike the models used by most pool lifeguards, you want one with a snap-link on one side. This will allow the rescuer to wrap it around an unconscious victim.

Ice awls: Ice awls are a valuable tool for facilitating travel on the ice and pulling oneself back up onto the ice. You can make ice awls from a pair of old screwdrivers by grinding the points on one end and drilling a hole in the handle for a cord. You can also purchase them from an ice rescue vendor. My favorite model is one that features retracted tips that are exposed only when pushed against a hard surface; however, in cold climates, these may freeze up more often. (In the Pacific Northwest, where the temperatures may be milder than the northeast during the colder months, it’s not a problem.) The plus side is you are less likely to tear up your gear if the points are unexposed. Tip: If using a pair with exposed points, use the end of oxygen supply tubing or a nasal cannula as a tip cover.

Reach poles: Nearly all fire apparatus carry pike poles or other hook-type tools. When available, pass the D handle end of a pole to your victim. If there is no D handle, pass them the hook as they will have difficulty grabbing the round shaft of a tool. Remember: If they’ve been in the water for a few minutes, they may not be able to hold onto anything, which will require you to get into the water and assist them.

Andy Speier is a captain with Snohomish County (Wash.) Fire District 1, assigned to Engine 18. He is the district technical rescue team training coordinator and a training coordinator for the Snohomish County Technical Rescue Team. With a fire service career that spans 32 years and several departments, he is a partner in SPEC RESCUE International and a senior instructor for the Peak Rescue Institute. Contact him at 206/784-5272 or

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