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Auto-Inflatable PFD Review

The following article was submitted by Capt. Andy Gliganic, a veteran New York Marine Division Officer. Although the article is specifically reviewing the Type V auto-inflatable PFD, you should be aware that there are also approved Type III manually inflatable PFDs. The Type III devices are not designed to auto-inflate and must be manually activated. Type IIIs are USCG approved for PFD carrying requirements and, unlike the Type V auto-inflatables, do not have to be worn to meet this requirement ....Capt. Matt

Standing at the edge of the dock, I’m looking down into the frigid waters of Great South Bay. I know we have to test these new inflatable life jackets in real world conditions, but couldn’t we do it in a pool?  Apfd5.jpg (12924 bytes) heated pool?  “That’d be cheating,” reminded Ron, our photographer (easy for him to say).  With a forced smile for the half dozen thoroughly perplexed bystanders, I take that long leap off the short pier wearing Mustang’s new auto-inflating personal flotation device (PFD).  Splash!  It’s beyond cold as I sink towards the bottom.  The water's getting darker, heck, it’s even getting colder. 

pfd9.jpg (17255 bytes)Should I start swimming?  Instead I count: one, two, three, four, five - WHOOSH!  The automatic inflator mechanism in my PFD punctures a CO2 cartridge causing the vest to fill with gas.  Immediately, 35 pounds of lift thrust me to the surface like a breaching whale. As I’m forced into a face up position with my head high over the surface, we’re all impressed with the PFD’s performance. All of us that is, except for the 6-year-old girl who asked, “Mommy, what’s wrong with that man?”

There’s no denying that PFDs save lives. Of the 815 people who died in U.S. boating accidents in 1998 (the most recent statistics available), most were not wearing life jackets.  To address this problem, at least within the marine law enforcement community, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) in 1993 adopted a resolution recommending that officers wear PFDs while on patrol boats.  In spite of this however, an informal poll of local marine law enforcement agencies revealed that over 50% still did not have an enforced, mandatory PFD program for their officers. 

pfd3.jpg (19154 bytes)The fact is that there’s wide resistance to the wearing of PFDs.  There are many reasons for this.  Conventional PFDs are uncomfortable, they restrict movement, and they’re  perceived as “uncool.”  But that’s changing.

With their recent approval by the USCG, several manufacturers are now offering auto-inflating PFDs. These vests are proving to be extremely effective and comfortable.  Although new to the US recreational market, these devices have much in common with survival PFDs used by fighter pilots and they've been used for years by boaters outside the US. Inspector Chris Wicks of the London Metropolitan Police Marine Unit tells us that his agency uses auto-inflator vests and that they have found them quite suitable. 

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Auto-inflating PFDs come in several variations but they basically work the same way. A gas-tight bladder is folded into a compact shape and is covered with a durable shell. The shell is held closed with Velcro until the PFD is inflated. Attached to the bladder is an oral inflator tube and an auto-firing mechanism containing a CO2 cartridge. The vest is worn at all times by the user and may be inflated in any of three ways:

1) it will automatically inflate if the wearer enters the water,

2) it may be orally inflated by blowing into the oral inflator tube, or

3) it may be manually inflated by pulling on a “rip cord.”  

The auto inflator device has a spring-loaded firing pin that punctures the high pressure CO2 cartridge.  A “bobbin” in the mechanism keeps it from firing until needed.  Once wet however, the bobbin (sometimes called a ‘pill’) rapidly disintegrates, tripping the firing pin.  The manual “rip cord” also activates the firing pin.

If inflated by any method other than the oral inflation tube, the vest needs to be rearmed before it can be put back into service.  If the manual lever (pull cord) was used, then a new CO2 cartridge and possibly an indicator pin must be installed.  If the auto-inflator was used, then a new bobbin/pill must be installed as well as the CO2 bottle.  Everything you need to rearm these vests are available as kits from their manufacturers.

Most auto-inflator PFDs are classified as type V devices. This means that they meet federal carriage requirements for PFDs provided that they are used as directed, and that they are worn at all times while on board. In addition, they are not approved for persons less than 16 years of age.

So What's the Catch? 

There are some things to consider before you switch to the Auto Inflators.

1) As opposed to conventional, inherently buoyant PFDs, these are high-tech devices.  They will not provide buoyancy until they’re inflated. This imposes a higher level of responsibility on the user. They MUST be carefully inspected before each use to see that the inflator mechanism is armed and in good condition. The bladder must not leak, and the user must be familiar with its use and operation. This is a big difference from using a conventional PFD. That's also why they’re not approved for use with persons less than 16 years old. 

2) They are not recommended for swift water sports (white water) or any activity where the user will probably get soaked (personal watercraft, sailboards). 

3) Cold weather adversely affects the operation of these PFDs.  While the CO2 cartridge will fully inflate the vest most of the year, in extremely cold temperatures the same amount of gas will not expand to the same volume, reducing the vest’s buoyancy. 

4) While they are designed to auto-inflate only when immersed in water and not by rain or high humidity, the ‘pill/bobbin’ material can break down under these conditions and activate the inflator. 

5) Inflatable PFDs provide no protection from hypothermia. 

6) Since there is a slight delay from immersion to inflation, they are not recommended for non-swimmers.

7) An inflatable MUST be worn as the outermost layer.  Never wear a coat or rain gear over these vests.

The Tests 

The two devices we tested were Mustang’s Airforce MD 3001 and Stearn’s Ultra Model 1339.  We tested these PFDs extensively for a total of 32 evaluation days.  Each was tested in the water and rearmed to check the difficulty of the procedure.  At the completion of these tests, all evaluators were debriefed and asked for their subjective and objective observations, including any tactical considerations. 

Our evaluators were unanimously impressed by the comfort and utility of these inflatables over conventional PFDs.  Because of their low weight and slim profile, our evaluators generally kept them on for the entire day, as opposed to conventional Type III PFDs, which came off at every opportunity. They didn’t dig into the side, they didn’t cause overheating, and because our models came in some variation of PD blue, they actually looked good with a uniform. 

The evaluators did bring up some tactical issues. On the plus side,pfd4.jpg (14287 bytes) they all liked the fact that the vest allowed unrestricted access to their service pistols. They also mentioned that because of its low profile, the vest didn’t restrict motion, allowing them to perform tasks as if they weren’t wearing a PFD.

pfd1.jpg (15379 bytes)Several evaluators noted that these vests had no pockets or other provisions for stowing emergency equipment such as strobes, pen flares, or whistles.  Another evaluator expressed concern that in a confrontation an adversary could grab at the vest or it’s waist belt and use that to restrain an officer. While this argument has merit, conventional PFDs also have straps to grab. What conventional vests don’t have, however, is the manual inflator ripcord.  We simulated a confrontation situation where the attacker pulled the officer’s manual inflator cord and then attempted to remove his weapon.  We found that unlike the explosive inflation of a car’s airbag, the vest inflated in a rapid, but controlled manner and in no way prevented the officer from using weapon retention techniques. We felt that the tremendous increase in officer survivability provided by the PFD far outweighed these minor disadvantages.

MUSTANG Airforce MD 3001

This vest, USCG approved as Type V and tested by UL Laboratories provides 35 pounds of buoyancy and is worn like a pair of suspenders. 

Of the PFDs tested, the Airforce MD3001 had the most compact feel.pfd12.jpg (8307 bytes)  Contained within a tough outer shell of 400 Denier nylon, the bladder folded into a very narrow profile, allowing easy access to uniform pockets and gun belt.  The strap and waist belt are constructed of a stiff webbing material which make donning easier. The bladder has taped and welded seams and is high-visibility yellow with SOLAS* reflective tape. A safety whistle is attached to the vest.  

Mustang supplies a very informative instruction manual and also has waterproof instruction panels attached to the bladder, next to the inflator mechanism.  Unlike the Stearns vest, however, these ‘onboard instruction panels' don’t show the refolding sequence. For that you need to refer to the instruction manual. 

The inflator mechanism uses a 33-gram, CO2 cylinder screwed into the top. An auto-inflation ‘cap’ containing the bobbin screws into the bottom. A manual inflation lever has a pull cord attached to it. The auto inflator cap uses colored indicator rings, which display green when the bobbin is in place and the system is armed, or red, if the bobbin has been used or the system is not armed.  The manual inflator lever is also equipped with a green cap that breaks off if the lever is engaged, which displays a red indicator at the lever.   

Unlike the other vests tested, the Airforce MD3001 has a spare CO2 cylinder and a yellow ‘Manual Only’ Cap, which can be used to convert the PFD into a Manual Inflation Only vest until you replace the Auto Inflation Cap. This is useful in the event that the vest deploys accidentally (or otherwise) while you’re at sea. The user just needs to be aware that it no longer has auto inflation and needs to be manually or orally inflated. Rearming kits are available and are simple to install in the field.

Our in-water testing showed that it auto-inflated in about five seconds and brought our guinea pig to the surface in a face-up position. When he attempted to turn over, the vest righted him immediately. The vest was comfortable both deflated and inflated, and the vest could be rapidly removed if necessary by unclipping the quick release buckle and pulling the bladder over his head.  

The Mustang Airforce MD3001 is available with a blue, red, or black carrier and comes with a one-year warranty. Manufacturers list price is $189. but you can find it for about $149. For more Information contact Mustang Survival USA 3870 Mustang Way, Bellingham WA 98226.  (360)676-1782  www.mustangsurvival.com 

STEARNS  Ultra Model 1339

This Type V auto-inflatable vest is worn in the suspender fashion and provides 33.7 pounds of buoyancy.  It is USCG and UL approved.   

Because of its low cost, reliability, and excellent performance, thepfd13.jpg (7111 bytes) Stearns Ultra Model 1339 is showing up on more patrol boats than any other auto inflator, at least in the Long Island area. Our reviewers thought that it was light, comfortable, and the straps didn't get in the way, however some evaluators thought that it wasn't quite as "military" looking as the Mustang MD 3001.

Protected by a tough nylon cover, the high visibility yellow bladder has taped and welded seams, and SOLAS* reflective tape. Our test model did not come with an attached whistle. The waist and back straps are less stiff than in the Mustang vest, making donning slightly more difficult, and our evaluators found that the back strap would ride around the waist strap necessitating a periodic readjustment.

Stearns provides all documentation and instructions via water proof labels attached to the bladder. If you have the vest, you have instructions telling you everything from how to don the vest, rearm, and repack it. Fairly idiot proof. Speaking of idiot proof, the "Secumatic" inflator mechanism has a total of three color indicators allowing the user to see at a glance the status of the CO2 bottle, the manual release lever mechanism, and the auto inflator pill. Green means good, red means that there's a problem. This vest comes with one CO2 cartridge however, and it would probably be prudent to carry a spare rearming kit if you're using this as a primary patrol PFD.

Water testing showed that the auto-inflator activated in about 5 seconds and immediately brought our victim to the surface in a head high position. Even when inflated, the vest remained comfortable. The oral inflator tube was easy to access and the large buckle allowed easy egress from the vest if necessary.

The Stearns Model 1339 Auto-Inflatable is available in International Orange or Navy Blue, has a list price of 149.99 and comes with a one year warranty.  Get more information from Stearns Inc., PO Box 1498, St. Cloud, MN 5630,  (800)697-5801,  www.stearnsinc.com

I am willing to predict that Auto-Inflatable PFDs will do more to promote boating safety than any other single product.  By providing safety with comfort and style, these PFDs will meet with much less resistance from the professional and recreational boater.  In fact, dozens of law enforcement agencies around the country are either now using them or considering doing so. And, as the full time wearing of PFDs by marine officers becomes common, their use by recreational boaters will become more acceptable and perhaps the norm. Now, if only we can design a wrap around auto-inflatable cushion for personal watercraft..........  

*International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea

 

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