Open Water Rescue Procedures & Equipment

Open Water Rescue
Procedures & Equipment

Man Overboard !!!!

This is a very dynamic field right now, many of the internet links supplied with the original article are no longer valid, also many of the companies themselves no longer exit. We kept the original references for historical purposes, plus they may give you a place to begin more current research.

Legal Disclaimer

Open water rescue is a response to a very dangerous situation. The rescue itself may be dangerous and life threatening. Polson Enterprises, RBBI, and Gary and Lora Polson are posting this page and the others on this site for informational purposes only and assume no risk or responsibility for anyone using any of the devices, procedures, or methods described on this page or any other page of this site.

In July of 1997 we were approached by a firm with a new device that might have application in open water rescue operations. They were interested in the "numbers" of larger recreational boats and ships worldwide. We put some info together for them along with some additional water rescue information. We thought it might be of assistance to others as well, so we posted it here.

Abbreviations and Word Definitions

Table of Contents



To get a "handle" on the number of and types of ships "out there", first you need to realize what kinds there are. Most surface ships can be broadly categorized as cargo, passenger (some may ferry cars also), military, fishing or research vessels.

Classification Societies classify ships into one of about 50 categories and make sure the ship meets all the safety requirements. If you are interested in safety devices for ships, you should certainly get acquainted with these groups. Some links to them are provided below.

Ship Classification Society Links

Numbers of ships in various categories can be obtained from Lloyds databases (for a fee) or from some of the industry magazines such as Marine Log ( To find statistics in publications, we suggest you try ASI (American Statistical Index), SRI (Statistical Reference Index) and IIS(Index to International Statistics) at a major library. They index publications that print statistical information of the nature you are looking for. In addition to the indexing statistical references, they also provide abstracts of them.

Fairplay ( has a 45,000 vessel databases online at no charge that may be able to assist you.

The United Nations has a group called FAO (Food & Agriculture Organization) that has a fishery division. Their fishery website ( ) leads to a database ( of world wide fishing vessels called "fleet statistics".

HELMEPA ( publishes the SOLAS regulations ( .

The Cruise ship industry is well represented on the net. The Cruise Ship SOLAS Page covers some of their safety operations.

For examining the latest types of ships from around the world, nothing exceeds the Jane's publications ( The specific volumes covering ships are listed below. You will be able to find some of them in most major libraries.

RBBI also has a fairly extensive list of maritime links that may be of some assistance.

Some Other Potentially Useful Links

Larger Recreational Boats (Power and Sail)

The EPA commissioned a market profile on pleasure boating when it was preparing emission legislation.This is a large study (151 pages) is dated May 1994. It is available FREE from the EPA via phone, fax, or mailed request. Just request: DOCKET # A-92-28 Item # II-A-04 SBI MARKET PROFILE ON PLEASURE BOATS

Send To:

Office of Air & Radiation
Docket & Information Center (Air Docket)
401 M Street S.W.
Room M-1500
Mail Code 6102
Waterside Mall
Washington D.C. 20460

Phone (202) 260-7548
Fax      (202) 260-4400

Strategis (, a Canadian government statistics site has an excellent boat statistics site with coverage not only of Canada, but also some coverage of the US and Japan.

Infoboat ( can search for the number of registered vessels in the US of certain hull lengths in certain states.

The Vessel Identification System ( (VIS) will eventually house information in a nationwide database on registered boats.

You can always try the
NMMA (the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Accident Statistics

If you are working on rescue devices, it might be a good idea to see how many accidents appear to have been able to use your device. Our Boating Accidents Folder has several leads to boating accident statistics.

Rescue Procedures

RBBI Divides a Basic Water Rescue into Steps

Most of the water rescues we (RBBI) are concerned with involve people from small boats being ejected, capsized, crashed, burned, etc. Their are many other ways to enter the water: car falls off bridge, individual falls off bridge or cliff bank, swimmers, airplane crashes in water, and many others. We will focus primarily on the small boat and ship situation below but many of the steps apply to the other situations as well.

After studying the various information on this page and elsewhere we noticed that a water rescue seems to have a sequence of steps. The various devices and procedures seem to deal with one of more steps. Sometimes several of the devices and/or procedures are used during one rescue. Below is the list of steps we developed.

Water Rescue Steps per RBBI

  1. Any Precautions taken prior to entry of the individual into the water such as storing some safety items on the boat, wearing a PFD, filing a boating plan with a family member, taking swimming lessons, etc.
  2. Event puts an individual in the water
  3. Sometimes an automatic marker is deployed when an individual enters the water
  4. Sometimes an automatic alarm goes off when a person enters the water
  5. Realization by someone else that the individual is in the water (sound, sight, notice the person is missing, etc)
  6. Sometimes when it is realized a person has entered the water an alarm is sounded (yelling, horn, etc)
  7. Sometimes when it is realized a person has entered the water, the current location is marked (gps locator, throw out a buoy, an automatic marker)
  8. Attempts are made to visually locate the person. These may involve a considerable search when larger vessels are involved. It may involve several boats, airplanes, and many professionals.
  9. Once the person is sighted, one of more individual are assigned to keep their eyes on the person in the water at all times.
  10. A floatation device of some sort may be thrown to the person.
  11. The rescue craft begins to approach the person. The rescue craft may not be the same boat the person was on. It might be a smaller craft dispatched from a large ship, another boat, a PWC, the Coast Guard, or some other water vehicle.
  12. Sometimes a device or swimmers are put into the water the water to bring the individual along side the rescue craft.
  13. Sometimes a device is used to raise the individual over the side of the boat, especially in the case of large ships.
  14. Immediate emergency medical treatment is employed if necessary (CPR, first aid)
  15. Hypothermia precautions are taken if water and or air is cold.
  16. Individual is transported to a medical facility if necessary.
  17. Treatments from here on is handled by physicians.
  18. The incident is reported to the proper authorities if necessary.
  19. Sometimes planning is done to reduce the possibility of this accident occurring again, and to look for ways of improving the response to the accident.

Visual sighting of persons in the water is a very critical step. It can be greatly hindered by the passage of time since the individual went into the water, darkness, the season of the year (few people on the water outside of normal boating season), poor weather conditions, rough water conditions, and the remoteness of the geographical location.

If the rescue attempt fails to visually locate the individual, and the individual has drowned, the scene turns into a police, scuba diver, and drag site in an attempt to locate the body. Sometimes these efforts are also unsuccessful and the body floats up in a few days and is found later or it may never be recovered. It is much better to have a successful water rescue than to end up with a search for a drowning victim. We hope the knowledge and devices on this page will be helpful in increasing the "live finds".

In some cases involving larger ocean going ships, the individuals in the water may be in life rafts. We did not directly address that situation, but the steps should be quite similar except the search for a visual sighting is sometimes much more difficult and often involves air craft.

New Zealand Coast Guard

The New Zealand Coast Guard has a great online site that details the recommended procedures for rescue of a fishing vessel MOB ( and also for pleasure craft MOB (

Professional Water Rescue Operations

Hong Kong Rescue Operations

The Hong Kong Maritime Rescue Coordination Center ( web site shows the massive involvements required to coordinate rescue operations over a large area of highly trafficked seas.

Swift Water Rescue

Be sure to also see the CMC Water Rescue Forum ( which primarily discusses swift water river rescues.

Water Rescue Devices Jasons Cradle is a man overboard retrieving device. MOM9 MOB Module from Survival Technologies MOM8-A upcoming MOB Module from Survival Technologies TechRaft ultra small inflatable lifeboat for small craft TechFloat Throwable inflatable from Survival Technologies Markus Lifenet is an interesting "net like" throwable device.

Lifesaving Resources has a nice trunk like device for storing water rescue equipment they call "RESCUbE" ( ). Several larger items and poles can be affixed to the outside of the storage unit.They suggest that it can be used to store equipment at unmanned locations as well.

Several firms offer electronic signaling beacons. A Honk Kong web site describes the COSPAS ( system which is used to monitor these rescue beacons. NOAA ( also has a web site describing the COSPAS system. Even the U.S. Coast Guard ( has a page on the system. The devices are sometimes called PLBs, short for Personal Locator Beacons.

Res-Q Products ( has a number of products to treat the hypothermia of water rescue victims.

U.S. Coast Guard R&D web site has an excellent page describing their research into "Improvement of Search & Rescue Capabilities" which describes may devices they are evaluating and trying to improve. Because their site uses frames, the exact page is difficult to reference plus some of you may have trouble finding this important reference. We have copied the basic page to our site, but encourage you to read the original to be sure you read the latest version plus you will enjoy their improved graphics, photos, and the ability to interact with them.

If you have a rescue device or are looking at the potential of developing one, we would encourage you to look at the NASA "arm extension" device we promoted in our Inventors and Inventions Section. This device seems to show some potential for applications in this area. It is titled "Water Rescue Device" and is on the RBBI Inventions Page.

Use of PWC's (Personal Water Craft)

Many rescue units now make extensive use of PWC's . One with some nice "rescue drill" photos on the web is the Woodburn Fire District (

In 1996 Personal Water Craft Illustrated magazine had a great online article about the use of PWC's ( in water rescue operations.


Properly wearing the right PFD (Personal Floatation Device) for the situation still remains the greatest deterrent to loss of life in most MOB situations.

In recent years the use of inflatable PFD's in recreational use has certainly increased the number of people willing to wear one at all times while in or near the water.One of the leading companies in this area is Sospenders (

One supplier of commercial use PFD's is TaylorTec Inc ( their website does a good job of showing the various types available.

does a good job of showing the various types available.

Equipped to Survive Web Site's Aviation Life Vest page ( provides an evaluation of many different types of life vests for aviation use. Much of this material can also be applied to normal marine applications. It also specifically discusses life vests for children.

One firm posting some unique designs in floatation devices is Helm. Their Helm PFD( with a Pullover Hood and a face mask help float your head and to reduce the ingestion of water. Their SHIPS Anti Exposure Floatation Suit System ( is designed for ship use in cold water areas.They also have created software ( for "Buoyant Marine Wear Designers" that makes all the necessary calculations in the design of PFDs.

There is a alert for the commercial fishing industry encouraging them to wear PFD's with the results of a study of accidents in Alaskan Fishing Boats. The NIOH (National Institutes of Safety and Health) 1994 publication is titled, Preventing Drownings of Commercial Fishermen.

We are currently researching PFD floatation problems with very large highly conditioned men (low body fat) and will be publishing the results of our study here in the future. It will include the mathematics behind these applications, some specific accidents, and some informative graphs illustrating the general trends.


Wet suits are typically 2 to 5 mm in thickness and provide both some floatation and some insulation against the cold water. The thicker the suit is and the more it covers your body the more of each it provides. Some shorty suits that cover they trunk of your body and stop a the knees provide much less floatation and insulation than full body suits worn by divers or even suits that cover the trunk and go all the way to the ankles.

Recently some wake boarding suits have been approved as PFD devices for use in competition by their governing bodies. One of these is called the Fly High Wetsuit ( These suits do provide some floatation, but certainly aren't to be encouraged for use in other applications.

Wet suits may take on a considerable amount of water which can be a considerable problem for your floatation. This water also makes it more difficult for you to swim as you have to fight you legs or arms through the water inside the suit before your arm or leg really begins to move with respect to the water outside your suit.

RBBI Device Comments

Many of these devices are currently in use by or being evaluated by larger ships that often encounter much more serious situations than recreational craft. They are in rough seas, possibly in cold water, and often have a much greater difficulty in locating the MOB. We anticipate that several of these devices and methods will be adapted and "downsized" in space and cost to fit the needs of the recreational boating users in the future. We also hope that even new methods will also be developed.needs of the recreational boating users in the future. We also hope that even new methods will also be developed. Meanwhile, we encourage everyone to wear their PFD's.

The Water Rescue Device Industry

If you wish to learn more about the water rescue device industry, the companies in it, and how it operates we (Polson Enterprises) webmaster another web site that can help you. our Industry Research Desk web site has a unit titled "How to Learn More About a Specific Industry or Company". It will lead you through the steps and resources to learn more about this industry.

The SIC codes don't go "fine enough" at 4 digits to break out the industry very well, but here is a place to start.


Exposure to cold water causes hypothermia which actually causes a large number of MOB deaths. A few links to related information are provided below.

  • Alaskan Information Cache Hypothermia Page

  • Princeton University Hypothermia Page

  • Search and Rescue Society of British Columbia great links

  • info & hypothermia products Res-Q Products

  • Alaska Hypothermia Protocol

    Commonly Given Advice to Person in the Water

    This page primarily focues on the acts of those attempting to rescue the person in the water, but we will briefly list a few tips that are commonly listed by others for those involved in small craft accidents. We are not responsible for anyone following these directions. We are just listing some general guidelines frequently listed by others.

    These are just a few brief ideas, we strongly suggest you read some of the U.S. Coast Guard boating safety materials for additional information.

    Some Specific Ideas for Product Test Crew Situations

    RBBI is primarily focused on the recreational boat building industry. Many of these companies have on water test crews to test both their new products and their current production products. This section is for these test crews. You will need to develop a program for your exact situation but here are some basic idea to start from:

    1. Be sure the test crew:
      • knows how to swim
      • has been through a boating safety course
      • is CPR trained
      • knows how to properly operate the boats they are assigned
      • has had experience in the water with their clothes, shoes, and PFD on
      • have tried to pull an "unconcious" person over the side of their boat from the water
      • knows their way around the water being tested on (lake, river, ocean test site).
      • knows their way around on the roads and paths near the test area.
      • has experience with a fire extinguisher similar to the one in their boat.
      • always has a vehicle available at the test area.
      • knows the location of the nearest hospital and where the emergency entrance is.

    2. Be sure the boats are equipped with the proper safety equipment for your situation

    3. Conduct routine maintenance on all safety equipment including inflatable PFD's if used

    4. Have multiple ways of communication (radios, CB's, cell phones, walkie-talkies, pagers)

    5. Have a single place location of extra additional search and rescue equipment such as: binoculars, night vision binoculars, flares, extra batteries for all battery devices, towels, blankets, flashlights, search lights, heavy duty first aid kit, ropes, marking buoys, communication devices for searchers, special rescue devices.

    6. Have a central place for records such as the names and home phone numbers of the test crew members, a description and registration information of the test boats, emergency phone numbers (police, Coast Guard, Highway Patrol, Rangers, Fire Department, Hospitals), maps of the test area, and other similar information.

    7. Establish written safety procedures for your test crew such as: wear PFD's at all times and helmets when running specific tests or over XX mph., don't be on the water alone, no smoking, and others as needed.

    8. Establish a written safety procedure for dealing with boat fires. Be sure it covers all of your boats.

    9. Establish where the onsite and other emergency command posts will be. Some may have remote test facilities and require a command center at the business as well. Be sure everybody knows where these command posts are. Be sure proper communication devices will be available at these sites.

    10. Establish who will be in charge of each command post and also establish a "back up" commander for each site. Be sure they all have proper training and know how to run all the communication devices.

    11. If you test in cold water or cold air situations, be sure the crews fully understand the dangers of hypothermia. Make appropriate preparations for dealing with this situation.

    12. Speed Kills. If your crews are operating high speed boats, you need to be extra sure of your rescue plans and equipment as the chances you will need them are much higher. At the extreme, some crews use "chase boats" in these situations in order to have a rescue team nearby.

    13. If one particular group (lake patrol, fire department, or others) seems to be the one you would call on in an emergency of this nature, you need to visit with them and let them understand your basic operations, areas of operations, and establish a relationship with them. You might even wish to conduct a "drill" with them.

    14. Recognize that while you may have a normal test area, just as a football team has a home field, you probably also test or have your crews in other places from time to time (magazine shoots, boat shows, dealer locations, etc). These "road trips" are even more dangerous than a "road game". People are in unusual places and often tired. Be sure to take extra precautions in those situations.

    Again, you will need to develop a structure for your specific situation, but the materials above should give you a good place to start. If any of you have some safety or rescue ideas you would like to share with other crews in this same situation, please click on the mailbox near the bottom of this page and we will list them here (without your name or company if you wish)


    We noticed a firm, Dive Rescue International (, with a signicant web site in this field.

    Lifesaving Resources Inc. ( is another firm that appears to work in this area.

    Ambar Marine ( ) Fast Ocean Rescue Boats

    We encourage all inventors to thoroughly read the Inventions and Inventors Corner on this web site.

    One of the firms in the general rescue business, CMC, has a great online forum ( discussing water rescues. It is mainly oriented toward river (swift water) rescues.

    RBBI Parting Comments

    We think the slogan below about sums it up.

    Prepare for the worst,
    Hope for the best,
    and always wear your PFD.


    If you liked this page or would like to make any comments in this area, please drop us a line by "clicking" on the mail box at the left. Also, please let us know if you have seen any other MOB devices that should be added to this page.

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