SAFETY FIRST -- Life-Safer's Personal Retriever, a life ring/line bag
combination, has received approval from the U.S. Coast Guard, the first it
has given a new water-safety device in five years. Pictured from left to
right are Life-Safer principals Stuart Hartley, Larry Nance, Paul
Photo and Story by Jim Kelly
On Dec. 22, 2005 the U.S. Coast Guard approved a new water-safety device for the first
time in over five years.
The last invention to get their nod was inflatable suspenders, a boon
to individual protection for fishermen and merchant marines. This time the
approval will help to save the lives of anyone who might be drowning.
The newly approved device is the award-winning Personal Retriever
designed and marketed by Life-Safer, Inc.
Inspired by the memory of a near
drowning as a youth, Life-Safer President Paul Driscoll began his journey
toward Coast Guard approval in 1997 after retiring as a Master Chief from
the same organization.
A Life Ring Line Bag Combination
What Driscoll was trying to invent was a combination of a life ring
(has Coast Guard approval) and a line bag (does not have Coast Guard
approval, but most Coast Guard vessels use it). However, both the line bag
(what many rescuers call the "drowning-acceleration tool") and the life
ring have problems.
They only have an effective reach of 40 to 50 feet, and anyone who has
ever been hit by a life ring has surely remembered it.
"If you're in water and need help, you don't want someone throwing a
7-pound bag of potatoes at your head," Driscoll is fond of saying.
His concept of a Frisbee on a rope had been tried before with limited
success, but Driscoll's years commanding a Coast Guard cutter taught him
the dangers of throwing heavy objects at drowning men. "The only device
being worked on could have been used to explode watermelons," Driscoll
told this reporter in the first interview he has given since the Personal
Retriever was approved.
Driscoll Joined By Friends
So, Driscoll went to work on a device that could be safely thrown to
people in the water. He contacted Ben Dority, an engineer he knew, who
developed a prototype made of foam within two months of beginning his
research. During these early days when Driscoll was working on his
invention, he was joined in his quest by two friends Larry Nance and
former Coast Guard helicopter pilot Stuart Hartley.
Encouraged by the Personal Retriever's ability to safely deliver a
floatation device over a distance of 100 feet to those who were imperiled,
the threesome approached the Coast Guard for approval. However, the stamp
of approval did not come in 1997.
"You can sell this without our approval," the nabobs of Coast Guard
certification said. But, the three inventors knew they would never be able
to attract nationwide and international wholesalers without Coast Guard
The Struggle Begins
Thus began the real struggle for the three friends. From the beginning,
they knew they had something good, and others soon joined their fight for
certification. Fifty Coast Guard vessels began using the Personal
Retriever. Fire departments around the nation began using them and saving
Even two-time America's Cup winning navigator Peter Isler said, "The
Personal Retriever is an innovative, inexpensive, easy-to-use device that
could be invaluable in many different life-saving situations."
So, the three friends went back to the Coast Guard with numerous
endorsements. Six times they went back, and each time they were turned
When most people would be discouraged, Driscoll, Lance, and Hartley dug
in, exhausted their savings and continued to improve the device. They
added a light so the device could be seen at night.
Mounting detents were inserted for better throwing ability. A
hydrophilic line was adopted so it would float, shed water, and resist
More Support, Then Approval
As the years dragged on, more friends and supporters joined the band.
The Gulf Coast Mariners Association, Trauma Research & Education
Foundation, Watercraft Rescue & Training, Jim Sergerstrom, director of
Swift Water Rescue, and Captain Larry Brudnicki, (the Coast Guard captain
in The Perfect Storm) all asked the
question, "Why won't the Coast Guard approve this life-saving device?"
The scientific community also began to take notice of the Personal
Retriever. In December 2004, UCSD's Connect gave its Most Innovative New
Product Award (MIP) to the Frisbee on a rope.
Eventually, the weight of enthusiasm for the invention broke down the
fortifications of the Coast Guard. In December 2005 they, too, finally
agreed it was a good idea.
After all the suffering, both financial and emotional, Driscoll and his
two friends remain philosophical. "This struggle wasn't about a paycheck
for us," the old Master Chief said. "We were doing something to save
For more information on Life Safer's Personal retriever call (888)
222-0373, (619) 222-3467 or visit their Web site at