A firefighter dressed in turnout gear and no personal flotation device (PFD) falls out of a small boat during a flood in New Jersey while attempting to help flood victims.  Tragically, he drowns.

All firefighters have the potential of experiencing accidental immersion in flooded basements or trenches, covered pools, and open water sites.  Just look at the number of fire personnel standing on the Hennepin County Bridge collapse in turnout gear with no PFD’s.  If you suddenly end up submerged in the water while wearing turnout gear do you know what to do survive?

In the 1970’s FDNY had a problem with firefighter immersions during pier fire operations.  Walt “Butch” Hendrick, the trainer for the FDNY Special Operations Dive Teams at the time, developed a drownproofing turnout gear program in response to the pier situations.  The information presented in this article comes from that program and how it has developed  over the last 30 years.

This article does not take the place of actual hands-on training with certified instructors, who can immediately recognize the very subtle signs that precede panic, and who are capable of managing that situation.   A person can go from appearing fine to a full drowning mode in seconds.  The purpose of this article is to increase awareness of the importance of drownproofing training and of wearing appropriate personal flotation devices during all responses to known water sites.  It also describes what should be learned during training so you can evaluate a training program.

Many fire departments today still require firefighters to respond to all calls in turnout gear, including water operation calls.  Standard Operating Procedures should state that any firefighter who comes within any possible area of accidental immersion should wear an appropriate PFD.  Twenty-feet from the water’s edge is a common distance for requiring PFD’s.  But, if there are risks such as steep or slippery embankments, limited visibility weather, structure collapse, strong winds, or moving water, then the 20 foot distance should be extended appropriately.

What is an appropriate PFD? It is a PFD with enough buoyancy to hold up a firefighter in fully saturated turnout gear.  There is only one way to find out whether a PFD is appropriate or not, and that is to go in a pool with the PFD and turnout gear.  Make sure to do this test in the shallow end of the pool so that if the PFD is not buoyant enough to keep the wearer’s airway dry, the wearer can simply stand up.  Rope off the deep end of the pool to prevent the possibility that a firefighter accidentally ends up in water too deep to stand in.  Make sure to have at least one safety person per PFD tester to provide any needed assistance.  We recommend not having more than three testers in the water at a time, and keep them at least five feet apart so they cannot grab each other.  Remember to be aware that everyone has different buoyancy characteristics based on fat to muscle ratios.  Hence, a PFD that might keep one person at the surface in turnout gear, might not work for someone who is a serious body builder.  Consider, also, what tools a firefighter carries in their coat pockets.

When performing this PFD test, first stand vertically and open the top of the coat to release the air from under the coat. Cross your arms over your chest and squat to release any trapped air. Every pint of air is equal to a pound of buoyancy. Ten pints of trapped air gives the wearer ten pounds of buoyancy, which may be enough to keep the airway dry. PFD’s have to work in the worst case scenario – when there is no air trapped under the turnout gear.

One question that always arises is should the PFD be worn under or over the turnout coat? We tend to prefer under for the following reasons:

  1. One reason relates to size. If the PFD is not large enough to go over the coat comfortably, then there is a greater chance that it will not be fully closed, and therefore will not work properly. Or, if closed, it might cause breathing difficulty during exertion.
  2. If the PFD is not buoyant enough, the turnout coat can be ditched if the PFD is worn under the coat. Lastly, if immersed firefighters are able to make their way to shore, they may need to ditch the coat to be able to get out of the water. A saturated turnout coat can be very heavy, especially when it is out of the water. Fatigue or a very soft mud bottom may become unmanageable if firefighters have to carry the weight of the coat.
  3. A snug PFD over a turnout coat can prevent air from being trapped in the coat, which will decrease buoyancy and warmth. Air is an important insulator. This is can be an important consideration since water conducts heat 25 times faster than air, and we loose heat at the same rate in 42 degree F air as in 80 degree F water.
  4. One problem with wearing the PFD under the coat is that the safety officer may not be able to tell from afar whether or not firefighters are wearing PFD’s, since there are not visible when covered by a turnout coat.

The first step in learning how to survive immersion while wearing turnout gear is to learn how to survive immersion while wearing standard clothes and no PFD. This skill, called drownproofing, helps students become more comfortable in the water and teaches them how to effectively move in the water when survival is an issue. Comfort and proper movement are critical to surviving turnout gear immersion, and can make the difference between life and death for non or poor swimmers.

Some trainers espouse that turnout gear will definitely keep you afloat in the water. This is not always true, and thus is a dangerous statement. If the coat is damaged, if the water current is strong, or if struggling releases too much air, then the firefighter can rapidly become significantly negatively buoyant and drowning could occur in less than 60 seconds.

The tragic fact that firefighters have drowned while wearing turnout gear is the harsh proof that turnout out gear does not guarantee to keep you afloat. The key to surviving turnout gear immersion is to keep yourself buoyant enough to float, and to be equally capable of ditching the turnout gear if too much air is lost.

While being immersed with clothes on, some people can float, and others have a greater muscle to fat ratio making floating not a realistic option.  Also, floaters need bobbing skills to be able to survive in saturated turnout gear. Bobbing in itself is an art form that requires a qualified instructor and enough practice.

Drownproofing is a collection of skills involving bobbing, floating, and breath control. Some key aspects of both drownproofing and surviving in turnout gear include:

  1. Move as little as possible to keep air trapped in the turnout gear and to prevent fatigue. If any movement is necessary, do it slowly, gently, and minimally.
  2. Keep muscles relaxed – tense muscles decrease buoyancy.
  3. Breathe before you feel a strong urge to breathe. This will help prevent a build up of carbon dioxide. Increased carbon dioxide levels increase the urge to breath and the likelihood of panic.
  4. Keep as much of your body, including your head, in the water as possible – any body part out of the water is dead weight that will drive you downwards.
  5. When vertical, keep your hands and arms lower than your shoulders, but not all the way down. Think about how you would start to give someone smaller than you a hug.

Once students can comfortably bob in water too deep to stand in for at least ten minutes, then it is time to put them in turnout gear.  Here is the mindset:

“Stop. Do not panic, control your breathing, and think.Most likely the turnout gear will keep you afloat for well over ten minutes – if you stay calm, cool, and collected. Just do what you were trained to do and you will survive. Have trust. If the turnout gear is not holding you up, ditch it as you were trained and you will survive.

Helmets and Collars

Almost all modern helmets float, which make them a useful tool. When you feel yourself falling in water learn to reflexively hold your collar closed and look upward. Use your other hand hold onto your helmet to prevent losing it, or if you are wearing an SCBA mask use that hand to hold the mask in place. Once you are immersed, slowly remove the helmet with the open part facing downward to trap air, and then tuck the helmet under an arm to provide lift.  When used properly, a helmet can keep many firefighters afloat until hypothermia sets in. Do not let go of your collar or helmet. Look around to determine the safest route to travel to get out of the water.

The reason for looking up when falling in water is to help prevent a laryngospasm. Accidental immersion can cause a gasp reflex, particularly when the water is cold. If the mouth is underwater or in the splash zone when the gasp occurs, water can be aspirated (inhaled). When fluid touches the trachea, the pharynx changes its shape and the epiglottis seals over the trachea to prevent more fluid from entering the lungs. A person experiencing a laryngospasm cannot inhale or exhale, which can lead to dangerous panic. Should this occur, do whatever it takes to remain calm and the laryngospasm will eventually release.

Turnout Boots

When you first fall in the water the boots may keep your legs afloat because of air trapped in them. Float on your back with one hand keeping the collar closed and the other securing the buoyant helmet. If you are a short distance from land, secure the helmet under the arm holding the collar, and very gently use the other arm like an oar to propel yourself backwards. Keep the wrist bent slightly downward to lessen the release of air from the cuff. Do not kick, as this can cause air loss in the boots, and the loss of important buoyancy. Also, kicking with boots on is very inefficient and can result in fatigue.

Always keep in mind – every movement may cause you to lose more air and buoyancy. Relax. Be calm, and move gently and slowly with deliberation.

If the boots lose buoyancy, or the rest of the gear becomes negative, then it is time to become vertical to prepare for doffing the turnout gear. If your feet are still buoyant but the rest of you is losing buoyancy, then gently roll to a prone position and gently lower your legs. To ditch the boots they have to fill with water. This is done by gently wiggling toes and if necessary, slowly rotating ankles. Do not attempt to kick them off. If your pants fit snuggly over the boots you may need to gently use the toe of one foot to slowly push downward on the heel of the other.

If possible secure one of the boots, empty it, and place it upside down in the water. A boot can provide even more buoyancy than a helmet. If you can, secure both boots. That will provide a significant amount of buoyancy.

Laced boots are more difficult to remove, and may not hold as much air as standard pull on boots. They will take additional training to ditch them if that becomes necessary.

Tournout Coats

The vapor barrier between the outer shell and inner thermal protection of the coat will trap air as long as the coat is properly closed and if it has not been damaged by heat, wear and tear, fire residue, or chemical damage. In our tests when firefighters entered the water backwards, forwards, or head first, enough air was trapped in their coats to keep most firefighters floating.

Keep your head in a forward position and gently squeeze the collar closed to prevent air escaping from the neck. If air has escaped, tuck your chin, release the collar a little, and blow air back in. If you have heavy tools in the pockets, slowly reach down with one hand and ditch them

If the coat loses too much air, and you are sinking, it is time to ditch the coat. This requires a well practiced, specific procedure. If the coat is removed in the water the same way it is removed on land, the potential for drowning will be high. If the coat is allowed to drop behind the rear of the body, as is done on land, the inner lining can entrap the arms low and behind the body. Once in that position, the coat has a tendency to drop below the buttocks and around the legs, thereby restricting upper and lower extremities.

The following procedure facilitates maintenance of positive buoyancy and freedom of movement:

  1. If you are holding a boot, slowly lower it and secure it between your legs, and let the helmet float directly in front of you.
  2. Open the coat slowly from the bottom up with one hand while maintaining collar closure. Unfortunately some styles of coats only allow a top down opening procedure. Hold the collar closed with these coats as well.
  3. Once the coat is completely opened, remove it by grabbing both bottom corners and bringing them over the top of your head, flipping  it inside out while catching air underneath it.
  4. At this point there should be a “pillow” of air in front of you, with your arms still in the sleeves of the “pillow”. Practice this procedure so that you can catch the helmet under this “pillow” for added buoyancy. Additional air can also be blown under the coat into the “pillow”.
  5. Lastly, pull your arms slowly out of the sleeves one at a time, keeping the air in the “pillow”.

This technique requires commitment and practice. Once you start removing the coat over your head you cannot stop. It has to come all the way in front of you or your head will be trapped in the coat. Instructors may choose to have some or all students practice this procedure first in the shallow end or while wearing PFD’s.

Bunker Pants

If pants loose flotation, they should be ditched, which requires the prior removal of the boots and coat. Gently remove the suspenders, open the pants, and gently push them down and off.

SCBA Masks and Cylinders

Most firefighters, who accidentally enter water with an SCBA mask on, reflexively rip their masks off. That is the last thing you want to do. As long as you have air in the cylinder, the mask will contain air, and thus provide positive buoyancy and a dry airway. Once the mask is removed, it becomes negatively buoyant. One of the reasons firefighters reflexively rip the mask off is because it may free-flow and chatter in the water due to it being a positive pressure system.  Do not be alarmed by this. It will not hurt you. Train to stop, think, and act – keep the mask on as long as it is providing air. Pushing the mask against the face may help to decrease the chatter.

SCBA masks are not SCUBA masks; they were NOT designed for immersion or submersion. Just because you can breathe with them at the surface does NOT mean you should use them to attempt an in-water rescue! This is true for many reasons beyond the scope of this article.

There is an inverse relationship between cylinder pressure and buoyancy. Full cylinders will have less buoyancy than empty cylinders. Most full systems with full cylinders will still allow you to float if you keep air in your coat and use proper procedures. If you are sinking then it is time to ditch everything. Your instructor will teach you how to do this, and how to decide if it should be ditched. If


We believe all firefighters should have some type of drownproofing turnout gear training if there is the chance that they could accidentally end up in water. Appropriate PFD’s should be mandatory for any water operation. Learn how to bob and possibly float in the water while wearing clothes prior to working with turnout gear. Learn to move slowly and gently with confident calmness.

And as Walt says, “with proper training, immersion while wearing turnout gear will not mean instant death. Training, a practiced plan, and a cool head will save your life. When used properly, turnout gear can become a tool to save you, rather than a weight to drown you.”

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