Consider this scenario: Your unit has been dispatched to a report of a dog that has fallen through the ice on a frozen pond. Upon your arrival, you see a dog attempting to get itself back onto the ice, but so far it’s only succeeded in breaking additional ice. The dog’s owner and neighbors have gathered and are quite concerned. Does your agency have appropriate training and PPE to attempt a rescue?
The PFD Rule
Appropriate PPE for attempting an ice rescue would be a cold-water rescue suit or a dry suit. Most agencies that respond to ice rescues carry Neoprene cold-water rescue suits, because they provide thermal protection and some abrasion resistance (over nylon suits), and they give the user positive buoyancy.
Initially, our agency wore these suits without a personal floatation device (PFD), not unlike most organizations. In training, our simulated victims wore either the same type of suit or a dry suit, which gave them some positive buoyancy. But it was only after we rescued an unconscious victim in open water that we realized our rescue suits may not always offer sufficient positive buoyancy to enable our rescuers to keep victims’ faces out of the water. Most victims are wearing bulky clothing that becomes quite heavy after being submerged in water. Based on this situation, we’ve now made it the rule, rather than the exception, that when performing ice rescues while wearing cold-water rescue suits, we always wear a PFD over the suit.
Prior to the cold weather setting in, try bringing a “victim” into shore who’s wearing street clothes, boots and a winter coat, while the rescuer is wearing only the cold-water rescue suit. After you’ve completed that drill, do it again but the second time around, have the rescuer don a PFD. If your department doesn’t wear PFDs already, I think you’ll find that it’s worth the time to don one.
In addition to the PFD, we expanded our list of ice rescue PPE to include a water rescue helmet for a couple reasons:
- A crushed Neoprene hood gives good thermal protection, but it does little to protect a rescuer if they fall and strike their head on the ice.
- When traveling across open water in the suit, rescuers lie on their back and use their hands and feet to propel themselves headfirst toward their victim. The line handler uses hand signals to indicate which direction they need to travel and when to turn around. If they don’t turn around at the right moment, rescuers may crash head-first into the ice, giving themselves a pretty good bump.
- Water rescue helmets provide additional protection to the back of the neck and ears. Most of the smaller brimmed rescue helmets also work well.
Devices for Thin Ice
In many parts of the country where the temperatures are cold and the ice is thick, rescuers may be able to retrieve a victim from a hole in the ice. They can then drag the victim up onto firmer ice and back to shore.
In the Pacific Northwest, our winters are rather mild, so if we get ice, it’s usually no more than 1½ inches thick. When a rescuer attempts to pull a victim back onto the ice, the ice continues to break and the rescuer ends up swimming the victim to shore in open water. Because of this, when possible, our department deploys a second rescuer who carries a Peterson Tube or a Carlson River Board to provide an additional means of floatation for the victim.
The Dog Rescue
What happened to the dog that fell through the ice? The firefighters donned their cold-water rescue suits, got into the water and retrieved the dog. I know what you’re thinking: We don’t rescue cats in trees, so why go out on the ice for a dog? If you have the right gear and the right training, then it could be a good training opportunity, except that a scared animal can be unpredictable and can injure a rescuer. Prior to attempting to rescue animals, rescue teams would be well advised to consult with their local animal control officer and come up with a plan together for how to deal with animal rescue scenarios. Tip: The extendable animal retrieval poles are one good way to reach an animal and maintain your safety.
Stay warm and dry out there this winter.