Coast Guard finds serious defect in popular survival suit

MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews perform a search and rescue demonstration off the back of the Coast Guard Cutter Munro April 15, 2013, in Womens Bay, Kodiak, Alaska. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.)
MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews perform a search and rescue demonstration off the back of the Coast Guard Cutter Munro April 15, 2013, in Womens Bay, Kodiak, Alaska. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.)

The Coast Guard has found a serious defect with a common brand of survival suit that may reduce their usefulness in emergencies.

Survival suits, also called immersion suits, are full-body protective suits that the Coast Guard requires on commercial fishing vessels for sailors to wear in an emergency. The suits have flotation devices and are meant to protect sailors from freezing water as they await rescue.

Scott Wilwert is the commercial fishing vessel safety program manager for the Coast Guard in Alaska. He says the problem was discovered during a routine inspection in June.

“Inspectors that were out in Bristol Bay a few weeks ago reported finding issues with relatively newly manufactured immersion suits,” Wilwert said. “And what they were finding was an area of what appeared to be a delamination, or a lack of adhesion of the glue that’s used to fix the zipper assembly to the neoprene part of the suit.”

A product photo of a man in an Imperial survival suit
The Imperial Immersion Suit by Survitec. The USCG says the survival suit may have a serious defect. (photo: Survitec Group)

The suits are Imperial Immersion Suits manufactured by Survitec Group, a safety equipment manufacturer based in the United Kingdom that makes everything from lifeboats for submarines to “G” suits for fighter pilots. They are one of only a handful of companies approved by the Coast Guard to make survival suits for use in the United States.

Wilwert says the Coast Guard isn’t sure how widespread the issue is. The problem became apparent in late June. After the Coast Guard notified Survitec, the company told the Coast Guard they had seen suits in Canada with a similar defect.

Wilwert says the Coast Guard then began finding more suits in Alaska with the same problem.

“I started to get a little feedback from some local Alaskan Coast Guard units who had taken it upon themselves to walk into some of the retail stores and vendors in their towns,” Wilwert said.

The Coast Guard did find suits on shelves that bore the defect. All were Imperial suits manufactured in the last few years.

Wilwert says that Survitec is investigating the defect and may soon issue a “general service bulletin” that will outline the extent of the problem and possible remediation for it, potentially including a recall.

Survitec could not be reached for comment in time for this story.

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