Make sure responders aren't left cold by their ice-rescue training.
As you watch the late-summer sun sets over the lake, your eyes settle on a cove where an ever-seeping spring meets the lake — the recreational hub of your department's jurisdiction. There, two snowmobilers ventured too close and broke through the fragile ice last season. You remember how lucky you and your crew were that day — it was daylight and the lake was shallow at that spot, enabling the snowmobilers to self rescue. But that day you vowed you'd get ice-rescue training for your crew before the next winter's winds blew in.
Other parts of the lake are deep, and winter activity on the lake has increased over the last few years. In addition, threat-analysis exercises with other area chiefs led you all to conclude that the danger of attempting an ice rescue with only minor knowledge and equipment subjects your firefighters and emergency medical responders to an unacceptable risk-benefit outcome.
If lakes and rivers are common to your area, and you reside in a climate that experiences substantial and prolonged below-freezing temperatures, an ice-water rescue event in your jurisdiction has a high probability.
Frozen waters present target hazards that are tough to preplan effectively, especially for small departments with limited equipment or responders. Until you can establish and solidify ice- and cold-water rescue skills within your department, preplan and establish automatic-aid standard operating procedures with local departments. Additionally, establish documented protocols and train on the procedures for who you are going to call in the event of an ice-rescue incident.
When analysis of your department's capabilities for technical or advanced ice rescue yields little promise, the most efficient approach for your program is to consider awareness- and operations-level training. Your responders' ability to assist a regional technical team — and to evaluate and communicate incident and victim conditions — is important information for the team that's en route to your scene. Establishing shore-based elements for scene safety, responder security and on-ice rescue activities also are valuable roles that operation level responders can provide. In contrast, technical-level responders perform on-ice rescues, while advanced ice-rescue skills involve rigging for multi-victims, long-distance responses, and rescues over moving water. Both technical and advanced levels require considerable hours for training as well as maintaining skills.
Ice-rescue incidents follow the same strategic guidelines as any other incident. The strategic priority of life safety dictates the need to design, implement and execute a safe and effective ice rescue. These same rules need to apply for training sessions. For successful ice-rescue training and response, coordinated training exercises and documented SOPs between automatic- and mutual-aid companies are crucial.
Use results from your department's capacity assessment as the basis for designing an ice-rescue training session. What are the known values for levels of capability? How many ice-rescue awareness-, operations-, technician-, or advanced-level responders do you have? Do you have a competent leader and instructor to guide them? Leadership and instructional capacity for successful ice-rescue training depends on the knowledge, proficiency, abilities and experience of the chosen instructors.
Engage in conversations with successful ice-rescue teams and discuss their lessons learned. How did they get started and how do they maintain their skills and certifications? What local agencies, vendors and specialists may be able to assist with training and equipment guidance? Educate yourself on what equipment is needed for each type of operation plan. And above all else, make the commitment that no responder steps onto the ice unless you have the proper equipment and training in place.
Safe and effective ice-rescue capabilities are best learned through scenarios that relate to actual ice-rescue events. Scott Sammons, fire commissioner of the Port Ewen (N.Y.) Fire District said that many public-safety dive teams are trained with and use sport ice-diving procedures, which involve thick ice. “This is despite the fact that if a dog, child or adult falls through the ice, the ice is thin and unsupportive,” he said. “Dive team personnel cannot walk, crawl, stand or kneel on that ice.”
Establishing an ice-rescue training program also demands that chiefs take a critical look at available equipment. Ice-rescue equipment needs to compliment and functionally relate to your responders capabilities, department standard procedures, and any potential or preplanned response plans. Design your training program to match these variables. If personnel are interested and equipment only is available for an awareness- or operations-level response program, that is the level of training one needs to request. Short-term goals are acceptable when embarking on a new training venture. Strategic plans or future interest may allow for technician or advanced levels, but do not overwhelm your responders with training and response tasks for which they are not situationally prepared.
Training in context with professional instructors improves ice-rescue safety and effectiveness.
“The best time to train is when the ice is thin enough to fall through and the snow is falling,” said Andrea Zaferes, an instructor with Lifeguard Systems. “Real-life training is for real-life rescues.”
Positive mitigation of an ice-rescue incident often is accomplished with only a few trained rescuers. The key is the responders' level of expertise and their ability to work efficiently with others who have operations- level training and a respect for the parameters of assisting special-rescue teams.
A team of trained rescuers have four primary categories of ice-rescue operational plans from which to choose: self-rescue, reach, throw and go. Responder resources and equipment, combined with sufficient training in context, will prepare your department to successfully respond to each of these ice-rescue operational plans.
Time is critical. The sooner a victim is located and treated, the higher the odds are for a full recovery. Quickly and sufficiently consider the following with regard to ice- rescue variables:
Evaluate incident conditions, including stability of the ice, time of day, response time for technical or advanced teams, geography of the incident scene, and available access.
Evaluate victim condition, including stage of hypothermia. Can you maintain two-way communication? Define and preserve accurate victim submersion location.
Evaluate personnel and equipment, assessing operational readiness and determining appropriate skill level, training and gear.
Create the incident action plan, accounting for the risk/benefit analysis. Create both operational and back-up plans that allow for an efficient rescue with minimal risk. Implement, access and adjust the as needed, as conditions will not remain static.
Whether preplanning for a potential incident, or creating and implementing an IAP, the benefit of the operation must always justify the risk to responders. Account for the fact that responder resources are more than just the number of responders who arrive on scene. Actual ice- rescue skills and the level of service capability for each responder must be fully known and understood by all members of the team and incident command staff. Support staff functions, such as scene lighting during night operations and other logistical tasks, also require planning.
The defined ice-rescue operational plans of self-rescue, reach, throw, and go all have specific skill sets and response variables.
Self-rescue plans relate to both responders' and victims' skills. Responders need to learn to communicate with victims and how to rescue themselves in the event of a breakdown in the IAP. Competency in donning ice-rescue suits, along with the proper use of ice awls, should be a minimum requirement of all responders who will venture onto ice. Ice cleats and head protection for both on-ice and on-shore responders also are recommended highly.
Reach-rescue operational plans may require only the uncomplicated reach of an extended arm or the use of an extension device such as a pike pole, ladder, backboard or surface ice-rescue pole. Reach plans and techniques dictate that the rescuer be in close proximity to the victim, and that the victim be able to physically and emotionally grasp and hold onto the reach device.
When the distance between the rescuer and victim is greater than a comfortable reach can maintain, throw operational plans come into play. Throw plans have a high degree of safety for the responder, but also have the prerequisite of skilled throw techniques. And, as with reach techniques, the victim must be able to assist in his own rescue.
If the victim shows signs of hypothermia and self-rescue, reach or throw options are not viable, technician-level go operational plans should be implemented. This is a high-risk plan for rescuers, as they must go to and establish direct physical contact with the victim. Complicating matters even further is the additional equipment needed for more complex go rescues, and the probable effect of advanced hypothermia, which renders the victim unable to assist with his own rescue, making him subject to sinking.
Making the decision to venture into a new area of rescue capacity such as ice rescue is one to be admired, but not to be taken lightly. Evaluate and discuss options with your mutual-aid chiefs, local instructors, and most importantly your own firefighters and emergency medical personnel. Critically analyze your responders' commitment to training and response, as well as your department's availability to obtain and use specialized ice-rescue equipment. Define and determine your degree of operational readiness and maintain preparedness. Never engage in operations beyond your department's level of training, but do strive to align your level of training with your department's degree of probability that an ice-rescue incident will occur.
Vicki Schmidt is a Maine state fire instructor and a volunteer firefighter with the Buckfield Fire Department. She also is the training program coordinator for the Frandford Mutual Aid Fire Training Association and the Western Maine Fire Attack School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.