Lifeguard Rescue Cans — A Brief History

The Iconic Lifeguard Rescue Can

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

Sometimes called a rescue buoy, the Rescue Can is made of buoyant material and is generally bright red. It includes multiple convenient handles on the sides and back. It also has a durable rope in case a lifeguard needs to throw this lifesaving tool into the water to help a distressed swimmer.

Whether at the pool or the ocean, professional lifeguards need resilient flotation devices to ensure they can rescue someone struggling in the water. The swimmer can use the Rescue Can to grab onto as they are pulled back to shore, and it makes it easier for the lifeguard to swim and save someone without exhausting their body.

The public’s awareness of the Rescue Can most likely dates back to the early 1990s, 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 Cans

History of Rescue Cans

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

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 durable 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 with 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.

How to Use a Lifeguard Rescue Can

Typically, a lifeguard has a Rescue Can by their side or strapped across their shoulders at all times. This lifesaving flotation device allows them to swim out to a person in trouble and bring them back to shore without putting their own safety at risk. There are several ways a lifeguard can use a Rescue Can, depending on the state of the swimmer being saved.

Swimming Out With the Rescue Can

For those within a reasonable swimming distance, a lifeguard can swim out to the distressed swimmer with the Rescue Can. Before jumping into the water, a lifeguard must identify the best mode of entry. There are a variety of factors to consider, including the position of their lifeguard station, the water’s depth, other people or obstacles in the way, and the condition of the swimmer.

Once they assess the situation, the lifeguard swims quickly to the distressed swimmer. The Rescue Can is held above and in front of them in the water as they kick their legs to propel themselves forward. Once they reach the person in need of saving, the lifeguard instructs them to grab on tightly to the Rescue Can’s handles so that the lifeguard can pull them to safety. Because each device is designed with multiple handles, a lifeguard can rescue more than one victim at a time if needed.

Throwing a Rescue Can

If the swimmer in need of help is either close by or too far out to reach by swimming, a lifeguard may choose to throw the Rescue Can into the water, similar to a lifesaving tube. In this situation, the durable ropes come in handy.

A lifeguard Rescue Can must be thrown carefully, ideally landing just beyond the distressed swimmer. Once the Rescue Can is within reach, the lifeguard directs them to grab onto the handles on the side or back so they can be pulled using the attached rope. The lifeguard then carefully drags the swimmer back to safety. This method can also be used to save multiple victims.

Throwing a Rescue Can is a less desirable rescue method as it does not guarantee that the lifesaving device will reach the swimmer in time.

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.

If your lifeguard team needs high-quality Rescue Cans, count on one of the most trusted names in lifesaving water equipment — Kiefer Aquatics. Contact us today to learn how we can meet your team’s specific needs.

About Robin Kiefer

Robin Kiefer is the Grandson of Adolph Kiefer, the Founder of Kiefer Swim Products. Today Kiefer Swim Products is a multifaceted company focused on serving the aquatic industry, lifeguards, and swimmers.

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