Ice Rescue Personal Protective Equipment

Winter is just around the corner bringing with it freezing temperatures. Seasonal climate changes and temperatures that will affect your lakes, ponds and moving waterways, which will begin to develop ice. People and pets are drawn to these frozen water attractions. A frozen over lake or pond is enticing, but can be deadly. You may be called to rescue someone or their pet.

Now, is the time to make sure that your ice rescue personal protective equipment is in proper working order. Be prepared before the call comes in.

First things first, it is important to evaluate the condition of your equipment. All departments should take their ice rescue equipment out of summer storage, inspect it thoroughly and take inventory. The condition you find your equipment in is dependent upon how carefully you have prepared and packaged your equipment for the off season. You may find upon inspection of your equipment that some, or all of it may need to be replaced.

Let’s take a closer look at your PPE (personal protective equipment), to include your ice rescue suits, dry suits, PFDs, helmets, harnesses and ice awls. Starting with your ice rescue suit, a cursory inspection should be performed making sure rodents have not feasted on your suit during the summer. Believe it or not, this is a common occurrence.

More than likely your suit is made of one of three types of material.

The first material is neoprene, which is fairly easy to repair in most cases. You will need glue which is specifically for use with neoprene and you may require additional neoprene material for larger repairs. Small pinholes can be repaired  with a drop of AquaSeal.® Many of these suits start to develop leaks throughout the seams. Once you observe or experience leaks in the seams, it is time to retire the suit, or put it into your training division.

Another type is the polyurethane ice rescue suit, this is a plastic coating that offers waterproof protection. The beauty of this fabric is that it can be repaired in the field if you develop a leak. For a few bucks you can purchase a peel and stick vinyl repair kit; field repair can be completed within seconds. Most of the time, damage to the polyurethane suit is incurred through improper storage in the off season. If your suit has suspenders, make sure they are in place and have not been ripped from the glued fabric.

The third type is the pack cloth ice rescue suit, which is a Cordura® style fabric. This is the most durable fabric for ice rescue. It wears extremely well and takes considerable abuse. The downside is it is not easy to do a field repair.

All of these suits will have the following components; zippers, attached gloves, attached boots, latex or silicone seals and ice awl storage pockets. When performing your inspection, take a look at the attached gloves and the attached boots. The boots and gloves are typically glued on, over the course of time, the glue may become brittle it will no longer offer sufficient adhesion. Inspect any latex, silicone, or neoprene seals at the neck, wrists and the feet. If the seals appear to be cracking or feel gummy it is time to replace them.

Now, let’s move on to the zipper, the zipper is one of the most expensive components of your suit. Make sure you have a metal zipper and not a plastic zipper. Plastic zippers are typically associated with the “man overboard immersion suits” typically referred to as “Gumby suits.” Visually inspect the zipper, checking the following: Is the zipper bent or broken? Is the zipper missing any teeth? If the zipper is damaged it may need to be replaced or you may need a new suit. If the zipper is in good working order it’s time to dress the zipper with paraffin wax;The romantics in your department can bring in used dinner candles. There are many acceptable ways to dress the zipper, however, there are areas of the zipper that should not be waxed. The channel between the teeth should not be waxed. To avoid getting wax in this channel it is best to wax the sides of the zipper and not directly on the top of the zipper. Next make sure the zipper-pull moves freely on the zipper. Make sure there is no unraveling of the fabric on the outer edge of the zipper. If you observe any tiny unraveled fibers on the outside of the “zipper channel” simply burn them off preventing further unraveling. In doing this you will prolong the life of the zipper. After you have completed all of the maintenance of the suit, it is time to do a pressure test. This will ensure there are no holes, or ruptured seams that may potentially leak.

Many ice rescue suits come with an integrated chest harness. These integrated harnesses do not meet NFPA 1500, and NFPA 1983 standards. Observe the stitching, webbing and  the carabiner making sure the wire-gate of the caribiner fully engages. These components are often made in foreign countries, where they do not have the same life safety standards that we have in the United States.

One of the most inexpensive items on your suits is a pair of ice awls. Ice awls are used for extricating yourself out of the ice. Ice awls provide crucial protection for rescuers, make sure your ice rescue suit has an ice awl attached at each wrist, remember safety is in redundancy. In addition, make sure the ice awls are tethered to the suit and the tether is the proper length.

All operational personnel must protect themselves on shore with a properly sized PFDs. (Personal Floatation Device). Inspect stitching, buckles zippers and fabric for tears or punctures, PFDs do wear out. A good rule of thumb is, if the lettering on the inside of the PFD is faded and is illegible, the PFD more than likely should be retired. Make sure the PFD is the proper size for the person using it. Wearing an improperly sized PFD offers little to no protection in the water.

In conclusion, now is the time to evaluate your personal protective equipment for your ice rescue response. Take care of the little issues and the big issues never come into play. Be prepared. Inspect, evaluate and rehab your life safety equipment before the actual call comes in.