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Prevention of Torso Reflex and the Proper Use of the Stearns' Cold Water/Ice Rescue Suit

By: Gerald Dworkin
Tel: (207) 967-8614
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Ice Rescue Suit

The purpose of this article is to describe the proper use and application of the Stearns Cold Water/ Ice Rescue Suit by Fire, Rescue, and other Public Safety Personnel during cold water and ice rescue incidents. This article has been specifically written to address the prevention of Torso Reflex or Inhalation Response during the rescuer's entry into cold water.

The Cold Water/Ice Rescue Suit

The Stearns Cold Water/Ice Rescue Suit is designed to keep the rescuer warm, dry, and afloat during cold water and ice rescue incidents. This suit totally encapsulates the rescuer from head to toe, with the exception of the rescuer's face which is exposed to the elements. This suit features a heavy-duty neoprene design with five-fingered gloves, rigid-sole boots, reinforced elbows and knees, integral chest harness, waterproof zipper, and a hood and face flap. The suit is available in two sizes - Adult Universal and Adult Oversized. The suit is international safety orange with SOLAS-grade retro-reflective tape for increased visibility during night operations. The suit is easily donned over clothing, with the exception of shoes which must be removed before donning.

Donning the Suit

The Stearns Cold Water/Ice Rescue Suit can be easily donned by a single unassisted rescuer while enroute to the scene of a cold water or ice rescue incident. However, if the suit cannot be donned while enroute, the author recommends a team-donning system whereby the rescuer is assisted into the suit by two additional team members. This method requires two personnel who support the rescuer on their shoulders as they pull the suit up and onto the rescuer. This procedure will reduce the donning time at the scene.

Prevention of Torso Reflex

Torso Reflex, or Inhalation Response, is an automatic physiological reaction resulting from sudden immersion into cold water. When sudden immersion takes place, the individual involuntarily gasps, which is a reflexive sucking in of air in an attempt to rapidly increase oxygen intake into the lungs. This increases the body's metabolic rate, building internal warmth in response to the cold. When the rescuer jumps into cold water with his face unprotected, the sudden urge to breathe deeply in response to the torso reflex, may cause the rescuer to inhale with the mouth underwater. If so, the rescuer inhales water rather than air into the lungs.

To prevent Torso Reflex, the rescuer should always cover his nose and mouth with his hands as he falls into the water. The rescuer should also attempt to land on the back, which also reduces facial contact during sudden immersion into the water. The action of covering the nose and mouth with the hands should be taught to all rescue personnel subject to entering cold water. This procedure should be instinctive and should be maintained until the rescuer regains a horizontal position on the surface with his face out of the water.

Rescue Applications

Prior to attempting a rescue over ice, the rescue team should carefully assess the ice conditions, while constantly watching the victim. The rescuer should always be tethered prior to attempting a rescue on the ice. The Cold Water/Ice Rescue Suit has an integral chest harness with a D-ring on the back of the suit for attachment of a tethered safety line. When moving across the ice, the rescuer should maintain a low center of gravity and should distribute his body weight as much as possible. Once the rescuer reaches the victim, his primary responsibility is to maintain contact with the victim while being towed back to shore via the tethered safety line.

If the rescuer must swim to the victim in cold water, it is safer and faster for the rescuer to assume a supine position (on the back) while approaching the victim head-first. This position reduces the chance of water from entering through the neck opening in the front of the suit. Because of the large area of the gloves, they form effective paddles for back stroking. If the rescuer is tethered to a safety line, the rescuer on shore can warn the rescuer with a line signal when the rescuer is near the victim. Upon reaching the victim, the rescuer can spin and approach the victim feet first, whereby the victim can then grab the rescuer's feet and ease himself up onto the rescuer's thighs. Another technique would be for the rescuer to tow a buoyant device (i.e. rescue tube) to the victim which the rescuer can then encircle around the victim during the rescue.

Extreme caution must be taken when tethering a rescuer in a moving water environment. If the rescuer needs to be tethered, the line should be tethered across, not parallel to the current. Rather than attaching the line into the integral chest harness, the line should be attached to a quick-release device which allows the rescuer to clear himself of the tethered line if necessary.

All line tending, boat, and on-shore support personnel should be wearing appropriate PFD's when in, on, and around the water. In addition, a back-up rescuer should also be available in a Cold Water/Ice Rescue Suit to assist the primary rescuer if required.

Equipment Adjuncts

To make the use of the Cold Water/Ice Rescue Suit more effective, we recommend several additional rescue devices to be used with this suit.

Inflatable Vests

Once the tethered rescuer reaches the victim, he can inflate the vest by pulling on the inflation cord or by manually blowing into the inflation tube. The use of an inflation vest provides the rescuer with 20 - 35 lbs. of additional buoyancy to assist in keeping the victim buoyant while being pulled to shore by support personnel. (Shown here is the Stearns Manual Inflatable PFD).


The use of fins can assist the rescuer in progressing through the water faster and more effectively. The rescuer still maintains a horizontal position on his back while kicking his way to the victim. (Shown here are the Force Fins)


During night operations, a steady-beam PFD light or light-tracker device can be used to illuminate the rescuer. Strobe lights are not recommended to be worn by the rescuer unless they can be attached to the back of the rescue suit. A strobe light attached to the front of the suit is too distracting to the rescuer. A light-tracker flashing light is also ideal as it is easily seen and attaches easily to the front or back of the suit without providing a distraction to the rescuer.

Quick-Release Devices

If the rescuer is tethered in moving water, it is critically important for him to be able to release the tether line quickly if necessary. A separate quick-release harness can be added to the suit for attachment of the safety line. If necessary, the rescuer releases the harness which immediately frees him from the tethered safety line.

Maintenance of the Suit

The Stearns Cold Water/Ice Rescue Suit is shipped and stored in its own carry case with snap closures for easy and fast access. The zipper should always remain lubricated for ease of use. A paraffin-based lubricant is provided by the manufacturer. Prior to storing the suit, the zipper and the snaps on the bag should be lubricated. The suit is extremely durable and can take a lot of rough use without tearing. Small holes can be easily repaired with neoprene repair cement.

After use, the suit should be rinsed thoroughly with clean water. The suit should then be turned inside out and allowed to dry thoroughly. After drying, the suit should be turned right side out and then rolled and placed inside the storage bag.


Special thanks are extended to the Keene Fire Department in Keene, NH for their assistance with this article. These photographs were taken on a beautiful sunny day in Keene, NH with an air temperature of 40&Mac251;F and a water temperature of 36&Mac251;F.

Gerald Dworkin, is a professional aquatics safety and water rescue consultant for Lifesaving Resources Inc. and is responsible for aquatics safety, lifeguard, water rescue, and ice rescue training curricula and programs. He also consults as an expert in drowning and aquatic injury litigation. He is a graduate from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and has over 30 years professional experience in the fire, EMS, and water rescue sector. He is currently a firefighter/EMT for the Harrisville (NH) Fire and Rescue Department.

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