Trials in New Zealand have concluded the opportunity for Swiftwater Breathing Apparatus (SWBA) to revolutionize flood and swiftwater rescue.
In 1942, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Émile Gagnan designed the first reliable and commercially successful open-circuit Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA), known as the Aqua-Lung. In 1945, Scott Aviation worked with the New York Fire Department to roll out the first widespread adoption of the AirPac, a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for firefighting.
Though swift water rescue techniques started to emerge in the 1970s, the mitigation of risks that threatened rescuer safety has focused on buoyancy with the development of Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs). However, even with highly buoyant PFDs, drowning can occur from aspirating as little as a teaspoon of water. The only sure way to prevent drowning is to prevent aspiration of water, and that can only be done with respiratory protection. As for such protection, SCUBA and SCBA are usually too large and heavy, making them generally not suitable for swift water rescue.
“There seems to be an obsession that more buoyancy is King, however some Rescue PFDs are becoming so over engineered that you cannot maneuver in them causing a hazard in itself. In aerated water you can still sink, like in a pit of foam – so the focus should now move from just buoyancy, to also the ability to keep breathing if submerged or engulfed by water”.
Over the past year trials have been carried out by PSI Global in New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates to repurpose Emergency Breathing Systems (EBS) for swift water rescue activities, which was coined “Swift Water Breathing Apparatus” or SWBA. EBS are mini-SCUBA systems used by aircrew to escape from downed aircraft in water. They are also used in sailing and other maritime situations to escape sinking or capsized vessels.
This article gives an overview of the performance of various EBS devices available on the market used in the trials and provides some legal and operational considerations for SWBA operators.
Firstly, SWBA operates without the intention to dive. SWBA serves to provide a few extra breaths of air so we can undertake surface level tasks that may be difficult to execute otherwise such as survive going through a long set a rapids or giving us time to grab onto a pole when attempting to escape the deathly churn of a low head dam. SWBA can also be used to minimize the risk of inhaling and ingesting contaminated flood water.
Secondly, it is operated always with a Personal Floatation Device (PFD). It is mounted in such a way that is out of the way, but the operator can quickly reach for the mouthpiece to provide breathable air. A low volume dive mask is best suited when using SWBA as higher volume masks become easier to unseal or detach in turbulent current.
PSI Global has developed the Good Practice Guide: Swiftwater Breathing Apparatus based on the WorkSafe New Zealand Good Practice Guide for Occupational Diving and Snorkelling to help agencies safely implement SWBA. Under this Guide, operators must hold swiftwater rescue technician and recreational diver certification prior to being trained on the SWBA.
With a lightweight air cylinder with between 300 and 500 mL (16 oz) water volume (to avoid additional regulatory requirements for hydrostatic testing in New Zealand), SWBA should mount between the shoulders at the rear to provide ease of access and reduce risk of damage. For many divers, this sounds like a redundant air system (pony bottle). The difference with SWBA is that is generally much smaller in volume and may also be made from carbon fibre (which are not suitable for deep diving due to their buoyancy and other factors).
The formal trial was conducted at Vector Wero whitewater park in October 2023 using the HEED3, Tiger Performance EBS and an improvised set using parts from various manufacturers including the Aqualung ABS Octopus. The Poseidon and Aqualung EBS underwent a desktop evaluation based on publicly available material and contact with their distributors. The two PFDs used across all EBS for the trials were the NRS Rapid Rescuer and the Force6 Rescue Ops vests.
Our trial found that the use of SWBA improved the operator experience significantly. We donned the SWBA at the start of the day’s activities and wore them to see if they impeded our movements and found no such interference.
The conditioned practice of having a relaxed jaw holding the mouthpiece (2nd stage regulator) in SCUBA diving prompted minor change in behaviour with the need to apply additional bite pressure when passing through rapids and hydraulics as otherwise the mouthpiece was prone to being pulled out by the turbulent water. It only took one such experience to encourage adopting a firmer bite in subsequent runs of the whitewater channel. The units with the exception of the improvised device, provided 1-2 minutes of air,
The improvised set used an assortment of parts from different suppliers, including a reconditioned AquaLung ABS Octopus which unlike the other mouthpieces is off-set by 120 degrees to the hose which made it easier to stow and deploy when packed down the front of the PFD.
We found it would be useful to have a sleeve protector to better trim the low pressure hose and to avoid it becoming an entanglement hazard should the hose inadvertently untuck from the front of the PFD. A sleeve would also aid in the recovery of the 2nd stage regulator should it be dropped or is pulled out of the mouth.
The front thickness of both PFDs ensured the purge valve was generally well protected from unwanted activation such as when getting out of the water chest first. With the low volume mask used in conjunction, it made working in challenging whitewater an uncannily relaxing experience even in the Class V waterfall. This however is the risk of SWBA, in that it may create a reliance and operator over-confidence, however we are sure this was the same criticism of the AirPac when that was introduced near 80 years ago.
SWBA was also tested with very pleasing results going through the base of a Class V waterfall
In review of data supplied by the National Fire Protection Association , the majority of water related firefighter fatalities were associated with rescuing or assisting others. Also of note was fatalities involving falling through ice and entrapment in vehicles being swept away in flood water, which highlights the potential for SWBA to be applied in a wider context to save rescuer lives.
All the products evaluated appear suitable for use as SWBA. Whether their individual manufacturers approve them for such use is not covered in this study. However, as all the proprietary devices are intended for escape purposes, they could be further modified to make them more suitable for swiftwater environments. The most common limitations were cylinder pressure or volume, and mouthpiece orientation. EBS nose plug features generally were not helpful and created an entanglement risk for SWBA users. Whatever product is chosen, a suitable length of hose must be supplied which may be different from the default length.
It is important to note that there is no standard for SWBA, and the standards developed for EBS such as those for aircraft escape are not suitable for swiftwater or the function that SWBA could play.
The SWBA mounting system was used as all of the non-improvised EBS did not have mounting systems intended for PFDs, though the Tiger Performance MOLLE mount had limited suitability. To allow the evaluation to continue, the proprietary SWBA mounting system was used.
Recharging the air cylinders generally easy, providing the fill port was did not require a hex or other type of key. With composite fibre air cylinders becoming more common in firefighting, 300 bar cylinders and compressors are common whereas recreational diving cylinders are normally limited to 207 bar. This means that there is greater likelihood that fire and rescue agencies have then the ability to decanter from their high pressure SCBA cylinders to the high pressure EBS such as those made by Tiger Performance and Aqua-Lung. Alternatively, large volume carbon fibre 300 bar cylinders can be used to decant from also.
In some countries such as New Zealand, even decanting requires special operator certification such as being certified as an “Approved Filler”. The regulatory requirements for SWBA may well extend beyond recharging the air cylinder but to operator or instructor requirements. For example, in New Zealand instructors (not students or operators) of SWBA are required to hold a Certificate of Competency as an Occupational Diver (General), meaning they must pass a commercial dive medical examination, be of good character, and hold a recognised Rescue Diver certification (i.e. PADI, SSI, NAUI etc). This highlights, that agencies considering the use of SWBA must undertake their own due diligence and seek legal advice before implementation to ensure local compliance.
Under the Good Practice Guideline – Swift Water Breathing Apparatus, operators must be certified. Certification to use SWBA under the Guideline requires completion of a recreational dive medical, verification of recognized swift water rescue technician (IPSQA, NFPA, DEFRA, Rescue 3, PUASAR002 etc) and Level 1 Supervised Diver (ISO 24801-1) credentials and passing an examination following the certified SWBA online course. Operating SWBA without training and/or certification may lead to serious injury or death.
SWBA Awareness is a person who has completed only the online theory module and must not be considered qualified to operate SWBA.
SWBA Operator is a person who has completed swiftwater rescue technician and diver certification, and has completed the online learning and examination.
SWBA Specialist is an operator who then undertakes accredited practical training including a skills check with an approved instructor.
SWBA Instructor is an specialist who is also qualified to teach the SWBA specialist practicum.
In conclusion, the potential of SWBA to revolutionize water rescue operations is undeniable. However, its implementation requires careful consideration of legal and operational factors. As we move forward, there is an opportunity to develop fit for purpose SWBA products and ensure that operators are adequately trained and certified. With these measures in place, SWBA could indeed be the game-changer we have been looking for in swiftwater rescue operations.
If you are already a swiftwater technician holding a diver certification, start your SWBA operator certification now with our 90 minute online course.
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If you already hold Swiftwater Instructor and Rescue Diver qualifications, and are interested to become an accredited SWBA Instructor/training provider or want SWBA practical training for your agency, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information. We can also offer SWBA certification as part of our Swiftwater Scholar programme.
The authors also wishes to thank fellow swiftwater instructors who helped run the testing and gave feedback during testing, including Mike Mather and Mike Harvey. Thank you to Dive Doctors, Dive HQ Wellington who provided technical assistance and Vector Wero whitewater park for use of their facilities. EBS and accessories were used in this study, but without manufacturer affiliation sought or received.
Dr Steve Glassey PhD has been teaching swiftwater rescue for twenty years, is a registered assessor for the International Public Safety Qualifications Authority (IPSQA) for swiftwater rescue, a WorkSafe New Zealand Certified Occupational Diver, Fellow of the Institute for Search & Technical Rescue and is a PADI Public Safety Diver™.
Mr Geoff Bray is a Commercial Dive Supervisor within government law enforcement in New Zealand. He has completed ADAS Dive Supervisor and Royal NZ Navy Diver courses and also is an experienced and internationally qualified swiftwater rescue instructor.
This article is copyright by Steve Glassey, 2023. All rights reserved.
SWBA is protected by registered trademark and may only be used with permission.
1. National Fire Protection Association. (n.d.). U.S. Firefighter Deaths During Water Rescues 1977-2020. NFPA Index 2976. Quincy, Massachusetts