Ice-rescue training is cold, slippery work Garden Spot firefighters practice in pond
BY LARRY ALEXANDER, Staff Writer
Rescuing someone who has fallen through the ice is the rarest but most dangerous call a firefighter is asked to perform, one in which time and the elements form a deadly union, ready to claim victim and rescuer alike.
"The risk is very great, but we don't run them very often," Garden Spot Fire and Rescue Capt. Mike Fryer said. "Still, you have to be ready."
That need for preparedness is what brought fire company members to the banks of Esbenshade's Pond in East Earl Township last week.
With a sheath of ice 1 inch thick at the edges and about 2 inches in the center -- all under a thin blanket of snow -- the pond, near Airport Road behind Mill Creek Estates mobile home park, was the scene of an ice rescue training exercise.
The drill was part of the requirements for state certification in ice rescue, Fryer said.
"We're going to put one of our firefighters out on the ice, and then we're going to perform a rescue on him," he said.
The member destined to go into the dark, icy water was Mitch Buzzard.
With the temperature at 31 degrees and wind chill hovering near zero, Buzzard, tethered to shore by a rope, carefully shuffled across the snow-covered pond.
About 30 feet from shore, Buzzard, wearing a bright red insulated dry suit, life vest and yellow helmet, hacked, kicked, punched and jumped up and down on the ice, creating a hole. Then he lowered himself into the water.
"The state-of-the-art dry suit fits a lot better than the old, what we called 'Gumby suits,' " Fryer said, watching his crew train. "You couldn't really move in them. This suit fits better and is thoroughly dry. You can hop into the water, and you're dry."
Buzzard, who later noted that he was wearing an Under Armour cold-weather suit beneath a fleece suit beneath his dry suit, bobbed in the water as he watched his comrades work to "rescue" him.
"I'm 6 foot tall, and I could not touch bottom," Buzzard said later.
The first rescuer was Jerry Mason, who began by using an ice staff to test the thickness. The ice staff has a rope loop on one end and a metal tip on the other, which is jabbed at the ice to gauge its strength.
Once satisfied that it would support him, Mason, who had a rope attached to his life vest that was secured by four men on shore, began walking carefully toward Buzzard.
"Get down and crawl," Fryer called. "Disperse your weight."
Mason dropped to hands and knees for a short distance, then lay flat and wriggled forward, like a combat infantryman under fire.
As a rescuer draws near to the victim, Fryer said, there are different things he can do. One is to extend the rope loop on the end of the ice staff and hope the victim can grab it and haul himself or herself from the water. But sometimes the victim is too weak.
"The biggest problem is hypothermia," Fryer explained. "Once you get in this cold water, it's just a matter of minutes before your body starts shutting down.
"When help arrives, the victim has already probably tried to get out multiple times. They're worn out and holding on to the edge, so nine out of 10 times when a rescuer gets to them, they can't help, so the rescuer pretty much has to do it all."
That means going into the water and, if possible, taking hold of the victim from behind. Once the rescuer has the victim in tow, the crew members on shore pull the rope, allowing the rescuer to roll himself and the victim from the hole. Then the crew on shore quickly drags the two across the ice to shore.
Fryer said rescuing a person from icy water must be as done as fast as possible.
"I wouldn't want to see a person in the water for more than 20 minutes," he said.
Last week, as Mason drew near to Buzzard, the ice gave, and he went into the water as well. Mason tried several times to roll himself out, with no success.
"It's very, very treacherous," Fryer said. "The ice keeps breaking."
Finally, the men on shore pulled on the rope, allowing Mason to roll out. He then helped Buzzard out, and the shore crew dragged them to safety.
Then Buzzard walked back out to the hole in the ice and dropped in, and the next man took his turn.
Fryer said there are other methods of ice rescue as well, including rope bags -- bags filled with rope that, when tossed to a victim, uncoil. The victim then grabs the bag and the rope and holds on as rescuers pull him or her from the water.
There's also a floating backboard, onto which an injured victim can be laid and the board pulled from the ice.
Fryer admitted that in 20 years he has participated in only one ice rescue, but said that does not negate the need to keep sharp.
"This time of year, you have a lot of kids out on the ice, skating or playing hockey," he said, "so it could happen any time."
If it does, Fryer and his crew are prepared.