Personal protective equipment: Water rescue

Control Measure Knowledge

This control measure should be read in conjunction with Personal protective equipment


Protecting rescuers when dealing with flooding and water rescue requires different clothing and accessories than protecting them during land-based rescues. Personal protective equipment (PPE) suitable for the task and environment should be used when working near, on or in water.

Personnel committing to water must have PPE specifically designed for expected activities. For example, immersion in offshore waters may require greater thermal protection and the effects of saltwater on equipment seals may need to be considered.

Buoyancy aids

A buoyancy aid must be compatible with any other PPE in use. There are two main categories of buoyancy aid; personal flotation device (PFD) and life jackets.

Personal flotation devices

A PFD should be appropriate to the wearer’s height, weight and size to ensure the appropriate level of buoyancy. It should also be suitable for the activities expected to be performed and provide a releasable tether where required.

PFDs are designed to allow wearers to swim and make other movements; they are suitable for use by trained responders during rescue but are not compatible for use with fire kit.

They should include a quick release securing system, designed for personnel to release themselves from a system if they experience difficulty while deployed in the water. A PFD should assist with retrieval and provide suitable buoyancy for the conditions it will be used in. Information on buoyancy aid requirements are provided in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publication, Personal buoyancy equipment on inland and inshore waters.

Once saturated, the additional weight of fire kit will negate any buoyancy offered by buoyancy aids; they will also not assist in maintaining a clear airway.

Life jackets

Life jackets, which offer a greater level of buoyancy and hold the wearer face up when immersed, regardless of levels of consciousness, are more appropriate for working near water. Any life jackets used should provide enough buoyancy to keep an adult wearing structural fire kit afloat, considering the weight when saturated.

Protection against thermal injury

The risk of thermal injury during a water rescue, including heat illness and hypothermia, should be considered when selecting appropriate PPE for personnel. The choice of PPE and thermal layer should reflect the expected activities and environmental conditions. For more information refer to:


Firefighting helmets are not designed for submersion and may pose a risk of neck injury if accidental entry into water occurs. When working near water responders should consider the need to wear a helmet that is suitable for use near water. Any decision to change the standards of PPE in use should reflect the levels of risk presented by other hazards personnel may be exposed to.


PPE selection for use in water should include well-fitting footwear that provides toe and sole protection, suitable for use on slippery surfaces.

Drysuits and thermal protection suits

Drysuits and associated thermal protection suits should provide the necessary protection from water temperature and ingress into the suit. This is achieved by ensuring that the suit fits the user, and all orifice seals provide an adequate seal against the skin. The size of the suit is very important as some orifice seals can be very tight and could restrict blood flow.

Snag hazards

Snag hazards should be removed from all PPE used in moving water. It is necessary to provide equipment to personnel to be able to release themselves if they become snagged or tangled in the water.

Working at night or in reduced visibility

If accidental entry into water occurs, it may be difficult to see or track personnel that are partially submerged. Fire and rescue services should consider some means of illuminating personnel working near, on or in water.

Waterproof beacons, lights or other personal illumination devices should be attached to personnel so that they can be identified if accidental entry into water occurs. Lights attached to PFDs or helmets should be activated. The (page 38) provides more information, including the accepted form for colour-coded lighting.


Equipment, vehicles and PPE used during a water rescue should be thoroughly decontaminated, with any debris such as mud, plant or animal matter removed and left at the site. Attention should be paid to the seams and seals of boots and waders, with any pockets of pooled water emptied.

Dry suit neck seals should be constructed of a material that allows for appropriate decontamination before the suit is removed. Neck seals made from absorbent materials, such as Neoprene, can hold and absorb contaminants even after wiping. A suitable decontamination procedure may be necessary to prevent contaminating the wearer when the dry suit is removed.

For more information refer to Environmental protection – Clean equipment, vehicles and personal protective equipment.

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