Water Rescue Throw Bag

The Selection and Use of Water Rescue Throw Bags

By: Bob Shields #24793

The water rescue throw bag is one of the most versatile and highly effective tools for the first responder. With practice, it can be easily mastered by anyone. This vital tool can be used for shore or boat-based rescues in static water, swiftwater, and for ice rescues. Its compact size makes it easily stored on any type of apparatus or vehicle.

Selecting a Throw Bag

When selecting a throw bag, rope construction and strength need to be considered. According to NFPA 1983: Standard on Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services, rope should be constructed of synthetic materials that float, like polypropylene. It should be a minimum diameter of 7mm (19/64”) and a maximum diameter of 9.5 mm (3/8”). The minimum breaking strength should be 13,000 N (2923 lbf).

After completing a threat assessment of the department’s jurisdiction, the department’s authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) can determine the most appropriate length rope needed to effect a rescue. Although there is no set standard for a throw bag length, it is recommended that a minimum length of 35 feet for boat-based rescues and 50 feet for shore-based rescues be used. 75 feet is the longest that is recommended for shore-based rescues due to bag weight and ability of the rescuer to accurately throw the line the required distance.

Bag Preparation

Upon receiving the throw bag, the agency should inspect and prepare the bag before it is placed in service. On a new bag, there is usually a large loop tied in the end of the rope that the rescuer will hold. When seeing this loop, rescuers may place it over their hand to secure it to their wrist. This is not recommended. Rescuers should never tie or attach themselves to the rope. That knot should be removed and replaced by a small figure 8 on a bight tied with a loop just large enough to accept a carabiner.

It is also recommended to remove all the rope from the bag to ensure it is repacked without any knots or entanglements which will prohibit it from deploying. When the rope is removed, the end of the rope that goes through the bottom of the bag should be prepared. First, tie an inline overhand knot as a stopper at least 12-18 inches from the end. Then pass the rope through the hole in the bottom of the bag. Tie a figure 8 on a bight with the loop just large enough to accept a carabiner. This loop allows bags to be connected and used as part of a rescue system.


When preparing to deploy a throw bag, especially from shore, the rescuer should consider the terrain and the presence of overhanging obstacles. Uneven or sloping terrain may make it difficult if not impossible to accurately deploy the bag. The rescuer’s safety may be in jeopardy due to the potential for a slip and fall resulting in injury or falling into the water. Overhanging obstacles such as trees or wires will inhibit the rescuer from fully deploying the bag and result in entanglements rendering the bag useless from that point on. Mastering different throwing techniques can help rescuers overcome such obstacles.

There are two basic throwing techniques rescuers should master. The first is the underhand throw and the second is the side arm throw. Prior to throwing the bag, the rescuer can dip the bag in the water to make it heavier which can increase throwing distance. With the underhand throw, the rescuer opens the bag fully and grasps the end of the rope in the non-throwing hand, leaving 2-3 feet between the bag and non-throwing hand. They then pinch the bag between the thumb and index finger. The bag is then swung backwards then sharply swung forward with the release point at or near eye level. If the bag is released too soon, it will skip across the water and fall short. If released too late, it will deploy straight up then land within a few feet of the rescuer.

With the side arm throw, the rescuer opens the bag fully, holds the end of the rope in the non-throwing hand, leaving 2-3 feet of rope between the bag and non-throwing hand. The rescuer then holds the bag in the outstretched hand to the side of the body keeping the arm parallel to the deck or ground. The arm is swung back then sharply forward releasing the bag as the throwing hand is in line with the front of the rescuer.

With both techniques, training is the key. Simple drills can be conducted on dry land to increase throwing proficiency. Deploying the bag in a field or parking lot is an easy drill to conduct. Another drill option is placing a garbage can or barrel at a set distance and seeing if the rescuer can get the bag in the can. As the rescuers get more proficient, decrease the size of the can and increase the distance.

When deploying a rope to a victim, the rescuer should yell “rope” to the victim. This will enable the victim to hopefully look at rescuer and lets them know a rope is on the way.

When using a throw bag for a moving water rescue, the rescuer needs to remain on the upstream side of the rope and never wrap the rope fully around themselves, especially when performing a body belay. It is also important to coach the victim to lay on their back and hold the rope over the opposite shoulder of the rescuer. This will place the victim in at an angle to the current increasing the speed at which the victim is pulled to shore.

For ice rescues, attempt to throw the bag directly over the top of the victim. This will result in the rope dropping on or very close to them. Coach the victim to wrap the rope around their arm several times. Using this technique will help the victim maintain contact with the rope. A victim who has been immersed in cold water for 10 minutes or more may lose the ability to grasp a line. But, they should be able to wrap the rope around their arm by simply moving the arm in a circular motion and then attempting to grasp the end. Encourage them to let their feet float up and kick as tension is applied. Once clear of the hole, ensure the victim remains in a prone position to disperse their weight over the ice preventing them from breaking through again.

As with any rescue skill, practice is key. Developing the muscle memory for the device will greatly increase the potential for a safe and successful rescue.

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