February 7, 2007

Firefighters Train for Ice Rescues

By Linda N. Weller, The Telegraph, Alton, Ill.

Feb. 7--ALTON -- Monday's frigid, single-digit temperatures weren't fit for man or beast, but they were perfect for suited-up Alton firefighters finally getting to train in ice rescue techniques -- in the water. "This is an impromptu training; when we get ice, we use it," said instructor Capt. Matt Fischer.

"It's a great opportunity for us," Alton Fire Chief John Sowders said. "We do a lot of training, and we've trained in regular water, but we had to wait two years to do this, because we couldn't get any ice" with previous winters' warm temperatures.

He said he couldn't remember Alton firefighters rescuing someone from an iced pond or river in his 28 years with the department, but firefighters still need to be prepared to do it correctly.

"In ice rescues, when untrained people try to rescue someone, it oftentimes ends up with a rescue of three or four people or people who are deceased," Deputy Fire Chief Greg Bock said.

He said the first impulse is to race to the flailing person in the water, but the ice can crack and break away more and take the would-be rescuer into the water.

A person in distress also may pull an untrained rescuer into the water.

The department bought its six bright, orange-red neoprene wetsuits in 2005, trained in the Mississippi River, then hoped for a chance to learn rescue techniques on ice.

ConocoPhillips provided $3,000 to purchase four of the Stearnes synthetic rubber, cold water suits.

It took two years, though, for the lake at Gordon F. Moore Community Park to freeze sufficiently to support firefighters' training. Fischer, who underwent ice rescue training last year in New England, said firefighters were undergoing either of two levels of training in recent days.

Those remaining on the now-closed swimming beach were learning at operations level, keeping track of the rescuers' tether and haul lines, and pulling in each rescuer and the victim. They later added another colorful rope, red, to pull the men on an orange plastic backboard that slid across the ice as if a toboggan.

Those training at the higher, technician level had to show they could "self-extricate" themselves up out of the cold water to the ice shelf and away from danger before trying to "save" someone else.

Sowders said firefighters volunteer for the training, and he is pleased with the extent of their interest. He said Fischer plans to train to get state certification for water rescue.

Training began Friday, continued through the weekend and concluded Monday, with a half-shift at a time suiting up and either pulling ropes or taking a plunge in the chilly water. Firefighters were unsure as to the depth of water in the lake but said it was over their heads.

While the squishy red suits evoked the inevitable cartoon Gumby wisecracks, they float and are well-insulated, leaving men in the water more comfortable than those with bulky turnout gear on shore.

"The warm guys are the guys in the suits," Sowders said about Fischer, firefighter Wayne Price and engineer Daimon Clines, the latter two who trained at the technician level during the first round Monday. Seven others trained onshore.

"C'mon Gumby, let's go," a firefighter urged one of his orange-clad comrades as they headed out the bathhouse and down the hill to the lake.

Once there, a firefighter hooked a blue safety tether line to Fischer, and he headed off to the hole. Despite hacking out a hole in the lake last week, on Monday, Fischer had to use an ax to reopen the 2- to 3-inch-thick ice, at one point plunging belly down on a stubborn floe to loosen it.

The men anchored the tether and haul lines to shore and to the ice. As they pulled on the haul line to lift Fischer, he used fluorescent orange, plastic ice awls with retractable picks to hack and hack on the ice shelf -- each 4 to 5 inches apart -- to gradually pull himself up.

He then rolled away from the hole to thicker ice, crawled a bit and stood up a safe distance from the hole.

Clines and Price then took turns following Fischer's demonstration. Fischer advised the men, "Come around to the side of the hole, don't turn around. Keep eye contact on them, or they will grab you and knock you down."

The next lesson was in rescuing each other, first without, then with a backboard with its own rope. The rescuer hooked the victim to the haul line. The in-water, primary rescuer was hooked farther back on the line, along with his tether line. The secondary rescuer was above on the ice but would drop into the water if needed.

Once secured, the "pull" command rang out, and three men pulled the tandem firefighters out of the ice hole and kept pulling at a steady pace.

"They don't want to stop," Sowders said, because it is important to keep a steady momentum.

"See how hard it is to pull them up over the ice shelf?" Sowders commented. "This is all done by hand, no mechanicals. If they pulled too hard, he would break his ribs."

The rescue concluded with the backboard. To rise over the ice shelf, the men pushed the plastic board up at a 45-degree angle as the order rang out, "Pull!"

"How's the water?" one of the shoreline men yelled.

"You don't feel it," Clines said, then admitted that air gets in the gloves and fingers get cold.

The men "did very well," Fischer said. "We had ideal conditions, a clean break" in the ice.

In a real rescue, the ice would be jagged and unstable, though.

"You would have to hold onto the ice shelf, because it will break away," he said.

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