After setting up a cold-water and ice-rescue training program, a small volunteer department discovers that most of what it initially thought was wrong.
Small, suburban volunteer fire departments typically have to be proverbial “jacks of all trades,” but all too often are the masters of none. On some calls they act as emergency medical responders, on others pump operators with rural water-delivery knowledge, and their skills as extrication technicians often are tested. This presents quite the challenge when it comes to providing comprehensive drills and training that are needed to master such diverse skills, given the limited available time and resources such departments seem to deal with constantly.
Having operated a small fire-and-rescue boat on our extensive interconnected lake system for some time, we moved to expand our rescue services to the snowmobilers, ice fishermen, residents, and occasionally animals that fall through the ice into the cold water. The scope of this project seemed straightforward, and the mission seemed clear: Develop and implement a program to properly equip and adequately train our members to respond to cold-water and ice-rescue emergency calls.
So, the project began. We acquired cold-water suits, helmets, ropes in throw bags and on reels, additional portable lighting equipment, an ice sled, and a lot of support components. Then we struggled to make space for it all in the rescue truck. Finally, as a training officer typically does, I looked for a good PowerPoint training program that we could use. We were ready to go. Or, so we thought. Over several years of operations we not only learned some very hard lessons, but we’ve also implemented changes to work towards a level of continuous improvement.
One of the most important lessons we learned was this: While we practice training in the winter months by cutting holes in the ice, amazingly most incidents happen in the early spring or early winter when the ice is thin.
We mistakenly had focused on drills that required responders to crawl out to a nicely cut hole in the ice, and then quickly slip into the water behind a very calm and often helpful victim. Then, with a simple tap on the head, both rescuer and victim were pulled out of the hole across the wet slippery ice to the safety of the shore less than 100 feet away. While this sort of drill is adequate for reinforcing technique and equipment familiarization, it is far from realistic when dealing with panicked victims in soft, thin and broken ice. The false sense of how little effort and physical exertion our drills required was contrasted sharply with the exhaustion that most felt when working with a combative victim in floating and fractured ice.
Today, our drills have taken on a much more realistic approach. Ice often is broken up with the help of heavy construction equipment, our training victims routinely exhibit considerable panic and struggle, and we practice with limited support staff.
Another key lesson concerned where we held our training in the early stages of the program. Typically, the training occurred in places that were convenient for apparatus parking and carrying our equipment to the edge of the water. Yet, actual incidents often happen in the most out-of-the-way places.
Pulling the apparatus into a nicely plowed parking area within 50 feet of the water’s edge sure makes things easier. The tarps and equipment quickly are staged in the flat lot, and even in frigid temperatures access to the water’s edge down a paved and shoveled walkway makes set-up a breeze for the support crews. But, reality sets in every time we respond to a farm pond or one of the dozens of lakes in our jurisdiction that offer only limited access. Moving equipment through several feet of snow and heavy brush a great distance while wearing a bulky ice-rescue suit comes with its own set of complications.
We identified several areas of improvement that not only deal with getting equipment to some remote locations, but also with taking into account the fragile nature of moving a hypothermic victim from the water to the warmth of a waiting ambulance. We identified that in some cases the best mode of providing critical pre-hospital care may be the use of an air ambulance. To complement some of our procedural changes and the acquisition of some additional equipment, we turned to Google Earth, which helped us to identify many hidden water hazards, and to plot our best course in and out of such areas.
Timing is Everything
We also learned that what seems very easy during daylight hours is extremely difficult to do at night or in a blizzard when you can’t see.
With our limited frequency of cold-water and ice-rescue training drills, it was rare that we dealt with anything other than really cold temperatures during our scheduled events. Working around everyone’s busy schedules, drills often found us on the lakes on Saturday mornings during daylight hours and rarely in poor weather conditions. The first real nighttime response spurred upgrades to portable-lighting capabilities; we even investigated using a thermal camera to support our efforts, though we found our cameras to be of only limited benefit. We also found that no matter how much rescue rope you have, sooner or later there be an incident that requires more. In other words, you never can have too much rescue rope.
So, as part of our continuous-improvement process, more rope has been added. We also invested in new high intensity halogen portable flashlights; provided everyone who gets into the water with small flashing LEDs; and can now re-task our interior-lit, fold-up traffic cones for additional visibility when needed. The importance of communications and accountability concerning the rescue teams cannot be stressed enough. Five-hundred feet onto the lake during a heavy snowstorm with almost no visibility to retrieve two snowmobilers is a highly hazardous situation for all who are involved. Proper equipment, training and team coordination is a must for a successful conclusion to such an incident.
Regarding team coordination, we discovered over time that at least two support personnel are needed for every responder who feels comfortable putting on a suit and heading into the water, as limited personnel resources really can hamper response.
As mentioned earlier, our initial training exercises gave us a very false sense of what our capabilities were. When we pulled the rescuer and victim from the hole, out onto the wet very slippery ice, one or two of us effortlessly pulled them less than 100 feet to the safety of the shore in a matter of seconds.
A couple of reality checks later, we now realize the importance of adequate support staff on the shore. The increased friction of pulling multiple victims and rescuers across snow-covered slushy ice several hundred feet can leave support personnel exhausted long before the teams have gotten back to a safe area near the shore. Even when using a Stokes basket or an ice sled — both of which improves the ability to pull them in—breaking ice under the rescue team can challenge even a support team of four on the safety lines.
While we have done some single-rescuer responses, we try to adhere to a simple rule of thumb: For each victim, we need two rescuers, four support personnel and one incident commander. Note that this benchmark would require about 12 responders when two victims are in the water, something that a small department with limited response capabilities might have difficulty providing. So, we routinely train with surrounding departments to improve our combined performance, communications and expectations. We no longer hesitate to ask for mutual aid very early in the incident.
Don’t be Fooled by the Calendar
We also learned that the personal protection afforded our responders by their cold-water suits can be just as important in the summer, when water temperatures may only be 60°F, as it is in January with ice and near-zero temperatures.
Our rescue boat is in the water about eight months each year. Historically, we always have had to deal with more open-water rescues than ice-related incidents. Sometimes the weather can be very misleading to an unprepared responder. A clear 60–70° day easily can mask the 50–60° water lying beneath. We all understand that quick victim removal from the water and proper medical assistance is the key to survival. Consequently, rescuers, being caught up in the moment, sometimes make the ill-advised decision of going in the water to initiate a rescue with no protective equipment. To think that Mother Nature has any respect for emergency responders in the water is a mistake. We all are bound by this simple scientific fact: the colder the water, the quicker we lose core body heat. And as core body temperature drops, we become increasingly less effective as rescuers and more at risk for the dangers of hypothermia.
Within the emergency response community there is an underlying acceptance of “acceptable risk” as we go about our business. But while we respect the balance between victim rescue and responder safety, we now provide access to our cold-water suits and equipment year round in the hope that good decisions can be enhanced by quick access to appropriate equipment.
The final lesson that we learned is this: If you ask three witnesses where a victim went into the water, you will get three very different answers.
We learned early on that if witnesses are not separated and asked some basic questions individually, the true location and extent of the incident cannot be determined in a timely or accurate manner. There is nothing worse than heading off in the wrong direction with the rescue crew and support team, only to learn that victims are either at a different location or, as has happened several times, have self-rescued themselves, departed the scene and left us eventually staring at nothing more than a hole in the ice wondering what the next step should be.
Knowledge of the exact location, number of victims, extent of injuries and situational conditions all ultimately will determine the level of resources that need to be allocated to the incident. One trick that has been found to be very helpful is having a local law-enforcement professional offer some basic techniques on witness interviewing. With time being a critical factor in a victim’s survival, we need to be extremely focused on gaining facts as quickly as possible and reacting appropriately with our rescue and support-team assets.
What initially seemed like a well-thought-out plan that included training drills, new equipment and operational guidelines, was found over time to be quite inadequate, as each new response brought challenges we never anticipated. Some call it naiveté or a lack of due diligence as we invested in the program, but we prefer to look at it as an ongoing opportunity for continuous improvement. From a training perspective, we have modified many of our drills that they now are based upon actual past responses that taxed our abilities. Yet, no matter what modifications we make to the training program, the best we can hope is that our members are proficient with their rescue and emergency medical skills, that they have appropriate equipment to keep them safe, and that each incident is recognized as an important learning and experience building block.
Rod Carringer is a 39-year active member with Center Township Volunteer Fire Department in northwest Indiana, where he currently is training captain and the department’s past chief of operations.
- On Ice: How to Create an Ice-Rescue Training Program
- A Deadly Mix: Water, Ice Rescues Need Detailed SOPs, Hazard Assessments
- A Troubling Paradox: Keys to Successful Cold Water- Rescue Training