Personal Flotation Devices: Picking the Right One

by Will Evans, director of safety education, Markel Insurance Company

Personal Flotation Devices, better known as PFDs, help save lives. There is so much evidence of this that the U.S. Coast Guard; almost every state (go to www.boatus.com to find your state requirements); boating organization; and the ACA standards support or require their use for boating activities. In December of 2002, in states where there are no children's PFD laws in place, a Coast Guard interim rule requires that children under thirteen who are on moving boats wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD that fits. For many camps, the activities that would require a PFD extend beyond sailing and canoeing on the lake. There could be water skiing, sail boarding, Blobs and Icebergs, jet skis, sea kayaking, white water canoeing, and snorkeling. Picking the right PFD for the activity can be trickier than one might imagine.

PFDs are categorized from Type I-Type V. Types II-III and V are the most commonly worn for most camp recreation activities. The performance of each Type PFD can vary tremendously, particularly in environments that they are not designed to function. For example, most Type V inflatable vests that would be appropriate for snorkeling would not be appropriate for water skiing where an impact with the water could deflate the vest.

PFD Label Explanations

You have to read the label on the lifejacket to determine its application. The following are representative labels. The form and content will vary by manufacturer.

 

"KAYAKSPORT" This is the intended use statement required by the U.S. Coast Guard. The designation "KAYAKING AND SAILING VEST" is the manufacturer's suggested use that does not necessarily limit this PFD to only those uses.
"ADULT LARGE" Sizing for lifejackets is based primarily on body weight. Chest size further defines the size.
"APPROVED FOR USE . . . ." As required by Coast Guard regulations, this section must include the boat sizes on which this PFD may be used and the weight (more than 90 lbs.) of the person for which the PFD is designed.
"U.S. COAST GUARD APPROVAL NO." The first six digits of the approval number 160.064 indicate the Federal Regulation under which the Coast Guard approved this PFD. The regulation section numbers differ by type of PFD being approved.
"DO NOT DRY CLEAN" All PFDs are required to have this warning as the chemicals and temperatures in the dry cleaning process can dissolve the foam used for flotation.

"NOT INTENDED FOR . . . ." Underwriters' Laboratory tests the structural integrity of the PFD by placing it in a frame and dropping it into the water from a boat at six different angles. Often a buckle will explode or a zipper seam may peal open. This disclaimer appears because many people mistake the structural integrity test for an endorsement of high speed use. NO PFD should be used for waterskiing or similar use unless it has been tested to at least 50 mph. Older PFDs may say "impact tested" instead of "strength tested" but this is no indication of personal protection from impact.

"UL" Originally, the Coast Guard approved PFDs in-house. They now require the PFD manufacturer to contract for this testing with a recognized sanctioned laboratory. UL controls the entire contents of this label. The "ISSUE NO. FB-5834" is
UL's reference number for this specific label.
 
"11041" is the lot number that usually contains in code the year and quarter of manufacture. A lot cannot consist of more than 1000 PFDs. A new lot must be started any time materials or production methods change. The lot number is important when contacting the manufacturer or Coast Guard about a defect.
"NOT INTENDED TO BE FASTENED TO THE BOAT" Any PFD that has fasteners or straps other than the closures must have this warning. A PFD fastened to the boat is not readily accessible in the case of emergency. With the exception of some Type V PFDs, this also means that wearers should not fasten themselves to the boat.
"WARNING" Carrying items such as carabineers or other equipment in the pockets of a PFD can reduce flotation as well as the ability of the PFD to right an unconscious victim in the water.
"POLYVINYL CHLORIDE FOAM" and polyethylene foams are the most common materials used for flotation. Avoid chemicals, fumes, or excessive heat which could break down the integrity of the foam. This PFD, which contains 15.5 lbs. of flotation is sufficient to keep the heads of 95 percent of the American population out of the water. PFDs with 22 lbs. of flotation will keep 99 percent of the heads out of the water.
"CAUTION: FABRIC FADING . . . . " Some bright and intense colored fabrics show fading more quickly than others. When retiring a weathered PFD, cut it into unusable pieces so that no one else will be tempted to reuse it.
"TEST THIS DEVICE . . . ." For flotation to work, the device must be submerged below the water and displace water equal to the weight of the wearer's head. Unless the PFD is fastened tightly, it will "ride up" under the arms and not keep the wearer's head out of the water.

Few people ever go out on the water with the intention of drowning, but it happens. We've heard for years that PFDs save lives. But, it's more than just picking up any old PFD and expecting it to function. Our choices of PFDs are determined by how the PFD is to be used and the activity. The right size PFD must be selected and properly fitted. Finally, the PFD doesn't do much good if it's not being worn. Take the time to look over your PFDs and verify they are in good condition, appropriate for the activities, and that they are being worn properly.

 

Frequent Problems With PFDs at Camp
Campers or participants for whatever reason don't wear them at boating activities.
PFD is the wrong size for the participant or improperly fastened resulting in compromised flotation of the participant.
Camp uses the wrong Type of PFD for the activity, especially waterskiing.
Boats are unsecured at the waterfront but the PFDs are locked up in a storage shed.
Participants use PFD for a seat or kneeling pad, which crushes the flotation and compromises the PFD.
PFDs do not replace trained supervision.
PFDs left in the sun when not in use tend to suffer more fabric degradation from the UV rays.

Originally published in the 2006 Winter issue of The CampLine.

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