Twenty-eight years ago, I started my rescue career as an enthusiastic volunteer search and rescue member in central Arizona. I got the team gear list and, one gadget at a time, I started putting together my pack (or as they say in the UK, my “kit”). That list changed a lot over the years, and when I became a firefighter, it changed again.
I know I’m stating the obvious when I say that personal gear for firefighters is different than it is for backcountry search and rescue (SAR) teams, but they do have core similarities. Let’s review some of the core rescue gear.
Rescue Helmet: The rescue helmet is essential. Three great options: 1) The Petzl Vertex helmet has been very popular with its integrated lighting system; 2) the Kask Super Plasma helmet has a comfortable and sturdy feel; and 3) the PMI Advantage II Helmet is certified to NFPA 1951 and has a brim.
Helmet-Mounted Lighting: Helmet-mounted lighting is essential for rescue. Petzl has long dominated the helmet light scene with its waterproof Duo series and PIXA lights. However, there has been a revolution in headlights with new LED technology. For example, the Princeton Tec Apex headlight features 200 lumens, a 150-hour run time, and it’s safe for hazardous locations with a UL Class I, Division 2, Groups A, B, C and D rating, and a Class II, Division 2, Groups F and G rating.
Rescue Harnesses: Rescue harness options abound. In general, the fire service follows NFPA 1983: Standard on Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services. Although this standard is actually a manufacturer standard, it provides a number of important definitions for personnel. The authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) sets the standard for the type of harness used by rescuers, but most technical rescue teams use a Class III life safety harness. My best advice on harnesses is to replace them on the same cycle that you use for ropes and other software. (Note: 5–7 years is typical, except when wear or damage dictates.)
State-of-the-art harnesses are high tech and provide for advanced ergonomic distribution of force in a fall. You really need to try them on and see what fits and feels comfortable.
Consider whether you need lots of padding and attachment points or if you want to go for something that’s lightweight with minimal padding and hardware. Your mission should drive your harness choice.
Gloves: Gloves are mission critical for tasks like belaying and operation of descent-control devices. My personal favorites are PMI’s Rope Tech Gloves for their comfort and dexterity. They’re a bit more affordable as well. The heavy-duty, so-called “rappel” gloves should probably be left on the shelf. These gloves aren’t supposed to be part of the descent-control system. Rescuers should rappel in control without the need for thick gloves. Slow and cool is the name of the game.
Boots: Boots can make a big difference, depending on your mission. If you’re climbing on steel or rock, consider a hiking boot with climbing rubber. If you’re doing structural collapse, steel toes are required. We issue climbing boots, and have the team member get fitted at the supplier.
Hardware: We issue each member five aluminum carabiners (can be general use or technical), a descent-control device and a set of soft ascenders. The popular descent-control devices seem to be the SMC Compact U Rack, the Petzl ID and the Conterra SCARAB Rescue Tool.
Edge Kit: The latest piece of gear that every rescue member seems to want is an AZTEK Pro Edge Kit in a small fanny pack. It has travel restriction in one side and a set of fours pulley system in the other. This kit is so useful in high-angle rescue that it’s well worth the price.
When it comes to packs for fire department missions, specifically, they tend to be small because we don’t go too far from our truck. We use a CamelBak product with a 100-oz. bladder and space for personal gear and clothing. Consider extra batteries, some food and minimal survival gear appropriate for your mission, not to mention space to add mission-specific stuff. This pack is small enough that you can add it to a larger gear pack if you need to carry one on a longer, more remote mission.
Overall, my philosophy tends to be to carry things that serve more than one purpose. I ask myself, “Do I really need this?” Experience will show you over time what you need or don’t need.
Sidebar: Gear for SAR Backcountry Teams
James Thompson, EMT-P—the EMS coordinator at the Grand Canyon National Park—shares how he organizes his personal survival search and rescue pack
6. Notepad, pen and Sharpie
7. Trauma shears
8. Two pairs of latex gloves
9. 1.5″ cloth tape
10. Roll of flagging tape in film canister
11. Ear protection (also in film canister)
1. Dry bag
2. Medium-weight base layer, top and bottoms
3. Lightweight shell, top and bottoms
4. Lightweight vest
5. Synthetic T-shirt
6. Synthetic neck gaiter
7. Synthetic lightweight beanie
8. Synthetic lightweight gloves
9. Cotton scarf
10. Cotton neck gaiter
Miscellaneous Pouch #1
1. Emergency tarp
2. Two garbage bags
3. Four 1-gallon zip lock bags
4. 30 feet of cord
5. 10 zipties
6. Lighter and four H2O tablets in Ziploc bag
7. Matches in waterproof case
8. Fire-starter in film canister
9. Duct tape
10. Body glide (for blister prevention)
11. Toilet paper
12. Hand sanitizer
Miscellaneous Pouch #2
2. Safety glasses
4. 1-gallon Ziploc bag
5. Ear protection
6. Four H2O tablets
7. Alum for treating silty river water
10. AAA and AA batteries
Survival Pack (used primarily for medevacs)
1. Pack with 2-liter CamelBak bladder
2. 1 liter H2O
3. Half-liter Gatorade
4. Fleece pullover
5. Food +3,500 calories
6. Misc. pouch #1
7. Extra radio battery
8. SkyProbe radio antenna
11. Three light sticks
12. Smoke and aerial signal, whistle
13. Extra batteries
14. Two headlamps
15. Notepad, pens and Sharpie
17. Lightweight bivouac sack (bivy)
1. Waist pack
2. BLS airway pouch
3. ALS airway pouch
5. IV start pouch
6. Extra IV fluid pouch
7. Syringe and needles kit
8. BP cuff
9. Bandaging kit
10. Trauma pads pouch
11. SAM splints
13. Gloves and PPE kit