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Lifeguard Rescue Cans – A Brief History

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The Iconic Lifeguard Rescue Can

The lifeguard Rescue Can is an iconic piece of waterfront rescue equipment.

The public’s awareness of the Rescue Can most likely dates back to the early 1990’s, as it was commonly wielded by TV show Baywatch stars Mitch (David Hasselhoff) and C.J .(Pamela Anderson). The Rescue Can predates Baywatch by nearly 100 years, and its actual history is considerably more interesting – and far less ridiculous.

History of Rescue CansRescue Can History

The Rescue Can was introduced in 1897. Its first incarnation was not overly user friendly, as it was pointed on both ends (ouch) and was made from thin sheets of  galvanized steel (no wonder it became known as a ‘Rescue Torpedo’). The pieces of the rescue can were joined with silver solder because the technology to weld such thin metal sheeting did not exist at that time.

This steel material design may have saved many from drowning, but not without injury.

However, these early rescue buoys were not without merit. They replaced ring buoys that were harder to drag through the water, and featured a shoulder harness similar to today’s buoys.

In the early 20th century, two guard teams used motorcycles equipped with Rescue Cans and a 1500 foot cable reel to patrol southern California beaches. One guard would swim out to the victim, Rescue Can in tow, while the other deployed the cable. Once the victim was reached, the guard on land would reel the rescue party back to shore.

Rescue Can Updates

Manufacturers began to experiment with other materials to improve the rescue can, offering models made from cork and balsa wood. The 1946 Kiefer catalog featured a 48 inch balsa wood “torpedo buoy” that was 6 inches in diameter and strung with “manila” rope (a natural fiber produced from a species of banana plant grown in the Philippines).

In the mid-1940’s, some steel rescue cans were replaced by aluminum cans, allowing a lighter weight and rounded ends to minimize injury during lifesaving.ing steel rescue cans, they were

Fast Forward 50 Years To 1970 – The Modern Rescue Can

In 1970 the Secretary of the National Surf Life Saving Association of America, Captain Bob Burnside, met with industrial designer Ron Rezek to redesign the Rescue Can. Rezek knew that contemporary plastic molding techniques could produce a seamless, watertight container.

Rezek created a torpedo shaped design, added strategically placed handles, and the Burnside Buoy was born.

Rescue Can Construction

Rescue Can Handles Rescue Can Buoy

Modern lifeguard Rescue Can buoy bodies are hard and lightweight, made from rotational molded polyethylene plastic. The molding process creates a hollow, air-filled buoy, causing the Rescue Can to be extremely buoyant and able to support multiple victims during rescues.

Polyethylene is an excellent choice of materials because it is shatter-resistant and highly due to its high resistance to chemicals and temperature extremes. Molded handles allow lifeguards to easily hand the Rescue Can to victims. The handles allow victims to maintain a firm and reassuring hold on the rescue buoy.

Rescue Can Harness & Towline

A shoulder harness made from Nylon webbing, looped under one arm and over the opposite shoulder, allows the rescuer to tow victims safely to shore without interfering their swim stroke.

Towlines are generally made from braided polypropylene rope and are approximately 7 feet (84 inches) in length to allow adequate towing distance, discouraging distressed victims from pouncing on rescuers.

Rescue Cans vs. Rescue tubes

Although more soft, flexible Rescue Tubes have gained popularity at swimming pools over the last 30 years, Rescue Cans are still a staple in waterfront rescue equipment.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed looking up at the Chicago Park District lifeguards during my swim as they carefully watch over countless swim waves during the Chicago Triathlon. Their attention is laser focused on safety, ready to offer assistance (and lifesaving) as needed – bright red Rescue Cans at their sides.

About Robin Kiefer

Robin Spencer Kiefer is a lifetime fitness swimmer and endurance athlete. After becoming an Ironman in 2008, Robin continues to push the limits of marketing & parenting. He is the Vice President of Digital Marketing and Ecommerce at Kiefer.

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