One of the new wetsuits donated by the Peter Antonni Foundation. Image Courtesy PPMA.

As scuba divers, we know how important it is to have a proper fitting wetsuit or drysuit to stay warm and comfortable underwater. A suit that doesn’t fit properly also restricts movement, creates more drag underwater, and takes more energy to swim with.

For those who make their living rescuing others in cold water, a proper fitting suit is not just important, it’s an absolute requirement. Thanks to a generous family, San Francisco firefighters who pull distressed surfers and swimmers from the waters around San Francisco now have 40 new, hand-sewn flexible swimmer’s wetsuits to wear while saving lives.

The suits were donated by the family foundation of Peter Antonini, an aspiring San Francisco firefighter who was ready to enter the firefighter training academy when he suddenly collapsed and died while jogging on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach in 2002.

In the oceanside ceremony on Thursday, March 12, his mother Linda Antonini told firefighters and supporters that her son would no doubt have joined the rescue unit and been wearing one of the wetsuits if he were alive today. “He knew what he wanted,” Linda Antonini said. “He had it all together at 21. He was going to have five kids and a red truck.”

She and her husband, San Francisco Planning Commissioner Michael Antonini, presented the new wetsuits to the department on the beach.

Until now, firefighters in the water rescue unit had to provide their own wetsuits, and they were often suits designed for surfing or diving, not swimming. Additionally, without distinctly-marked wetsuits, it was difficult to tell the rescuer from the victim which is vital in rescue situations.

The all-volunteer ocean rescue unit is currently made up of 300 members who work out of 9 fire stations near Ocean Beach. It was founded in 1986 after two firefighters jumped into the ocean in their boxer shorts to save a pair of swimmers ,and nearly died themselves from hypothermia. Last year, the water rescue unit took 170 rescue calls.