Back in the glory days of rafting, circa the 1980s and 1990s, when river guides wore whatever life jacket they could find at their nearest yard sale (and when finding a nice life jacket at a yard sale often predicated the random passerby then pursue a career in guiding), there was no such thing as a “rescue PFD”.
Sometime in the late 1990s, life jacket/PFD designs that featured a belay device harness/belt along with a quick release toggle began to surface. At nearly twice the price of the standard whitewater PFD, they were undesirable, and found a very small market segment among professional river guides, search and rescue personnel, and government rescue employees. Since that time, the rescue PFD has become the industry standard for professional whitewater rafting guides, to the point where not having one makes a guide look like quite an amateur, and real life rescue procedures demand that each guide have one and be trained to use it.
While most river guides in this day and age are still (sadly) not trained and certified in Swiftwater Rescue, there is a heightened awareness of the necessity of this skill if a guide is to climb the ranks for both better pay, and better job security. Slowly but surely the supply and demand curve is beginning to demand more of those in the whitewater raft guiding profession, and as a result, those serious about their profession invest in a rescue PFD, as well as swiftwater rescue training, early in their careers.
The anatomy of a rescue PFD is not dissimilar from that of any whitewater or kayaking PFD, the only main difference, aside from pure durability and mandatory strength, of material, is that there is a rescue harness attached to the center of the PFD, which wraps around the lower rib cage of a guide, and has a quick release buckle in the front or side, where the guide can “tie in” to a rope rescue system, and have the ability to release themselves in case of a tangle or otherwise dangerous situation involving the rope.
Rescue PFDs cannot be substituted for, and there is no replacing the skills attained in an SRT-1 course. While many guides own these rescue PFDs and do not know how to properly use one, it must be granted that simply having one in a rescue scenario is better than not, even if the guide is untrained in using it. The rescue PFD, in the hands of a trained professional rescuer, renders almost any whitewater rafting rescue scenario capable of being overcome, and it exposes possibilities for rescues where previously there was either no hope at all, or only a helicopter could be summoned, or worse yet, a recovery effort by the local Fire Department.
Rescue PFDs have indeed saved lives and for good reason is now the industry standard for river rafting guides across North America and soon the world. Guides that do not know how to use one and do not own one immediately put their guests at a disadvantage as soon as they enter the raft. In these cases there are several rescues that these guides simply cannot perform, and in such case that the rafting trip ends up in a scenario where only a swiftwater rescue with the utilization of a guide wearing a rescue PFD could be performed, now the guides will simply have to wait for additional help.
Owning a rescue PFD is priority #1 for new river guides looking to make a legitimate effort at guiding as a career, even a short one. Learning to use one requires proper training from rescue professionals like the lead trainers at Swiftwater Safety Institute, as well as continued refresher courses, or simply going out on an afternoon or day off and doing some practice drills to ensure that you and your equipment are both ready for the eventual whitewater river rescue.
If you do not own a rescue PFD and you are considering getting into whitewater, or if you raft or kayak recreationally and do not yet own one, take some time at your local gear store to try one on and talk to someone about how to use it. A rescue PFD is one piece of equipment that if used correctly, could save you or someone else’s life while on the river.