Rescue Gear For Women

There are some brand-name manufacturers making waves with their committment to high-quality rescue gear for women.  With each piece of equipment they design, the message to the rescue industry gets stronger – professional female rescuers shouldn’t have to choose between women’s-specific and rescue-specific gear.

Stories Of Commitment To Women’s Rescue Gear

As a rescue equipment distributer for first responders across Canada, we’ve come face-to-face with a handful of tenacious manufacturers that are dedicated to equipping female rescuers with top-quality gear.  While each organization has its own reasons for equipping female customers, they’re united by the common value of keeping rescuers safe.

The origin story of Georgia-based manufacturer, Pigeon Mountain Industries, compels them to maintain their commitment to high quality rescue equipment that fits all individuals:

PMI is a company founded and run by men and women who love ropes and rigging and who come from a field perspective. Many of our employees (men and women) are rescuers, rope access technicians, cavers and climbers who are passionate about work and play in the vertical realm.

Loui McCurley, present CEO of PMI, has been a member of Alpine Rescue Team in Colorado since 1985, and has also served as a firefighter and a rope access technician. In the early days especially, finding equipment to fit women was challenging at best for a slender woman. She recalls that most of the equipment she used back then was ill-fitting small menswear, equipment designed for children, and/or equipment designed for other purposes.  As a result of this experience, Loui was motivated to find new and better rescue equipment solutions for herself and other women.  Meanwhile, PMI founder and avid caver/rescuer Steve Hudson, at 6’4” and not a slight build, experienced similar issues at the opposite end of the spectrum. Together they formed an agreement that any future PMI harness, helmet, or glove would be bounded by their respective size extremes. PMI is also sensitive to hand size when selecting hardware suppliers with whom to partner for carabiners, descenders, and other equipment.

Loui still serves as a Technical Specialist with Alpine Rescue Team, and is also a certified Rope Access Technician.  She remains highly sensitive to the specialized needs of women who work at height and makes special effort to collaborate with and listen to the needs of women in the industry.

Across the country in California, Kokatat Director of Sales, Jeff Turner, says that their long-standing commitment to keeping female rescuers well equipped is a company-wide tradition. “This goes back a long time for us. Our former design manager had worked for Kokatat for many years, and she was in a position to influence the design and development of all our gear.  It was important to her to develop products that are designed to fit women.”

And head over the pond to the Czech Republic, home of harness manufacturer Singing Rock, and you’ll find out why they produce a rescue harness with the smallest waist on the market:

“The main reasons for including small size were basically two – women, and smaller-sized people in Asian and South American markets,” reports Sales Manager Jindrich Truhlár.  “We receive various positive comments on small harnesses, mainly from female rescuers.”

What Can Make Rescue Gear For Women Better?

Female rescuers face similar equipment issues across all rescue disciplines.  “It basically comes down to fit and function,” says Jeff Turner.  

In the world of drysuits, this translates to women’s specific patterning, drop seats, and lowered relief zippers.  Kokatat knows that these elements are critical to design, particularly for the rescue professional who works for long stretches in their garments.

As for harnesses, adjustability is critical. Take PMI’s Avatar harnesses, for example.  The PMI Avatar goes down to a 30 inch waist, has the ability to adjust the rear risers to fit around a curvier body shape, and offers the choice of either a V-type or H-type chest harness. The Avatar wasn’t specifically designed for women, but it was designed BY women, so it includes some features that will make it adjustable to a range of body sizes.  And if a small waist is the most important item on your harness tick list, keep in mind that the Singing Rock Expert III cinches down to a compact 22 inches.

SAR Team Manager Shauneen Nichols

… but small doesn’t necessarily mean great. Shauneen Nichols has been involved in her local Search and Rescue teams for over a decade, and has served as a search manager on multiple occasions. We spoke with her some years ago in our first women in rescue feature, and when we touched base this time around, she pointed out that “most full body rope rescue harnesses, even in the smaller sizes, still tend to dig into the hips no matter how much you adjust them.”  

Singing Rock recently introduced the padded waist of the new 3D Harness in a size small, which goes down to 25 inches. Perhaps some women will find the additional padding helpful when they have to spend hours in their harness.

And when it comes to PFDs, Shauneen says that some of the women she knows opt for Astral PFDs, becuase “the way they’re cut gives our bust a bit more room.  Once you get any full-bodied PFD tightened down adequately, it just crushes your chest and you can’t breathe properly. Unfortunately, making room for our chests takes away some of the bouancy of the PFD, which is crucial to keeping larger males up out of the water during a rescue.”  It is this kind of feedback on fit that prompted us to add the Type-V NRS Zen Rescue PFD to our Standard Swiftwater PPE Kit for Women.

Creating gear that fits professional female rescuers also means considering their perception in the workplace.

“Our female customers have made it clear to us that they do not particularly want to be singled out with pink helmets or fru fru features in gear,” McCurley comments.  Women in rescue want to perform their jobs with excellence, alongside their male counterparts.  PMI doesn’t necessarily label gear as a product designed just for women, but the smaller size range and unique designs mean that the equipment is safe and comfortable for women (and petite men) to use. 

The Business Case For Women’s Rescue Gear

“Although in the past years, it has been something of a challenge to sell enough of these specially sized items to justify the inventory, sometimes you just have to ‘do the right thing’ even when the economics don’t quite jive,” says PMI CEO, Loui McCurley. “Equipment that fits well and performs well provides a greater level of safety, and better supports an inclusive environment and the advent of more women in rescue and in other forms of work at height. For this reason alone we believe that the investment is worthwhile.”

“This is a long tradition for us, and frankly, it just makes sense,” explains Jeff Turner at Kokatat.  “Women, or men, we want all of our customers to be happy, comfortable and safe.”

But challenges remain, particularly in swiftwater equipment.

Female swiftwater rescuer

While there are a number of recreational PFDs and drysuits that work well for women, they don’t include the robust features that you can find in rescue-specific products like the Mustang Sentinel Series Drysuit, or the Mustang MRV150 Swiftwater Rescue Vest.  Mustang’s rescue products lead the industry year after year, so naturally we were curious why they haven’t invested in optimizing their PFDs and drysuits for a women’s fit.

“This is due to the business case that must be considered when developing PFDs, and the regulatory costs involved,” says Mustang Representative, Tony McCormick. “The potential volume of business is a key issue, and costs to design, produce and get through the regulatory hurdles dictate the viability of the products.”

This financial pinch point has frustrating implications for professional female rescuers looking for off-the-shelf options.  

While the Kokatat Odyssey Drysuit does feature women’s specific patterning and many robust features (including suspenders, reflective accents, and Gore-Tex reinforcement), it remains a different suit than the Mustang Sentinel Series, which provides for professional rescuers with foam padding, reinforced nylon seat, reinforced wrists and reinforced zippered ankle overcuffs.  

Professional female rescuers will find more rescue-specific options in the Type V Kokatat Guide PFD, which has equipped females for over twenty years with a quick release belt, reflective tape, pockets, and female-friendly sizing, and Mantis green colouring.  

With options like the Kokatat Guide PFD on the shelf, the grip held by Mustang’s MRV150 is beginning to loosen.  But comparing rescue-specific gear to women’s-specific gear remains a challenging undertaking – many of the products available are still as different as apples and oranges.

The reality that Mustang identified faces every gear manufacturer: 

Female recreationalists far exceed the number of female rescuers in the rope and swiftwater industries.  
Off-the-shelf equipment options reflect this reality.

Take the world of swiftwater, for example.  The recreational market is packed with excellent options for female paddlers.  NRS’ Pivot and Crux drysuits are great examples. And when it comes to PFDs, NRS has a collection designed specifically for recreational paddlers, which are well-worth considering along with Kokatat’s Guide PFD, and their 2020 HustleR (which features an expanded size range to fit a variety of body shapes).

And let’s be clear – these drysuits and PFDs are excellent, and they can certainly be worn by female professional rescuers on the job.

In fact, male rescuers opt to wear recreational suits and PFDs all the time… there’s no requirement that rescuers have to wear rescue-specific gear!  But the fact remains that female rescuers don’t have the choice that male rescuers do.  

Female professional rescuers have to choose between a recreational item designed for the female body type, or a rescue item designed for men.

Women’s Specific… or Rescue Specific? A Future Where We Won’t Have To Choose

The time is right for specifically designed rescue gear for women to become a staple in the industry: safety standards continue to motivate employers to equip first responders to the best of their abilities; more women are taking on rescue roles around the globe; and manufacturers with a strong commitment to equipping female professionals are well-positioned to meet an increased demand.

Organizations like PMI, Kokatat, NRS and Singing Rock have already made their dedication clear.  Professional female rescuers can motivate future developments at these forward-thinking companies by providing regular feedback about their needs.  Kokatat’s custom suit builder program is a prime example – it enables professional female rescuers to order a suit with women’s specific patterning, along with almost all the bells and whistles of the most robust rescue suit.  Kokatat’s customization options already allow the best of both worlds, and who knows… the more orders that are placed, the greater the chance that female rescuers may one day see off-the-shelf availability.

Here at RavenRSM, we will continue to promote manufacturers that are dedicated to equipping rescuers of all shapes and sizes.

We exist to support and educate first responders, whether they are professionals and volunteers, or occasional workplace rescuers. Getting Canadians into the right tools for their rescue jobs is part of our task at Raven, and we’re support this by offering women’s-specific Swiftwater and Rope PPE Kits alongside our original line of PPE Kits.

We’ve packed our kits with gear that is designed for variable body shapes and sizes.  The items we’ve selected for our kits weren’t necessarily designed specifically for women – like the Aqualung Evo 4 Boot, for example – but they’re available in smaller sizes than other options on the market.

We will continue to upgrade these kits with different products introduced to the market, as the days of having to choose between women’s-specific or rescue-specific come to an end… and rescue gear for women becomes a standard we can all expect.

This piece also appeared in Issue 7 of Wilderness SAR Magazine