Public Safety

Gazette reporter plunges into frozen lake to learn ice water rescues with CRFD

Cedar Rapids firefighters practice ice water rescues Feb. 27 at Cedar Lake in Cedar Rapids. About 200 feet off shore, tw
Cedar Rapids firefighters practice ice water rescues Feb. 27 at Cedar Lake in Cedar Rapids. About 200 feet off shore, two large holes were cut in the ice and each was marked with an orange cone. In pairs, firefighters would make their way to the holes. One would play the “victim” while the other firefighter “rescued” him. The remaining firefighters would stay near the bank, ready to heave-ho on the rope when the rescuing firefighter gave the signal — patting his own head. (Kat Russell/The Gazette)
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When I got up Feb. 27 to go to work, the last thing I expected was to end up wrapped in a bright yellow, way-too-big plastic suit and tossed into a hole in the ice on Cedar Lake.

But when Cedar Rapids firefighters offer to teach you how to do ice water rescues, that’s an opportunity you can’t pass up. Or at least I couldn’t.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday that week, the fire department ran ice water training drills for all its firefighters.

The drill was simple: About 10 or 12 firefighters at a time would arrive, put on big yellow suits and after about 15 minutes of lecture, waddle to the lake and wade into the water.

About 200 feet off shore, two large holes were cut into the ice and each was marked with an orange cone. In pairs, firefighters would make their way to the holes. One would play the “victim” while the firefighter “rescued” him.

The remaining six or so firefighters would stay near the bank, ready to heave-ho on the rope when the rescuing firefighter gave the signal — patting his own head.

In the past year or so, Training Chief Jason Andrews said, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department has been involved in about eight water rescues, a handful of which involved people falling through the ice.

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The most recent incident happened three days before Christmas, when 21-year-old Talon Edward Williams, a 17-year-old boy and a 14-year-old boy fell through ice on a pond at Mohawk Park near J Avenue NE.

Andrews said the teens were able to get to safety, but Williams remained submerged and the teens were unable to rescue him.

Firefighters recovered Williams’ body about 120 yards from shore. He had been submerged for more than two hours and was declared dead.

“Water rescue is a huge program in the fire department because there are so many aspects to it — there’s boat rescues, dive training, open water rescues, ice water rescues. So there are a lot of skills that we have to have so we can address whatever situation we come across,” Andrews said.

It may seem like a specialized field — like haz-mat or tactical rescues — but Andrews said every firefighter in the department is trained as an ice water rescue technician.

“Once someone goes into the water, time is a factor, especially if we’re talking about ice water,” he said. “So we want to make sure that every firefighter responding to a water rescue is trained on how to properly do it. That way, there’s no need to wait for a special rescue unit to get to the scene.”

I had never seen firefighters conduct an ice water rescue, let alone been asked if I wanted to learn to do them myself.

But Capt. Glen Heims could see the curiosity on my face and the gleam of possible adventure in my eye.

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“You really want to go in there,” he said to me as we watched the first round of firefighters waddle to the icy water.

He was right, I did. When would I ever get a chance like this again?

“Alright, well let’s get you in a suit,” he said.

The Ice Commander Mustang Suit is a one-size-sort-of-fits-all, insulated plastic, cold-water rescue suit that, if worn properly, is sealed against water getting in (as long as you don’t submerge your face).

The suit is buoyant, so you don’t have to work hard — or at all — to stay afloat, but you do have to work to stay vertical in the water.

And when I say it’s insulated, I mean it’s really insulated. I was shocked that while floating shoulder-deep in a hole cut in a frozen lake I wasn’t even a little bit cold. In fact, I was sweating.

Each suit costs about $1,000, Andrews said, and the fire department has made sure there is at least one suit on every apparatus in the city, as well as a bunch more kept at the Central Fire Station with the department’s boats and water-rescue equipment

Heims and I worked on three scenarios while I was in the water. First, he “rescued” me, then I “rescued” him and finally he taught me how to self-rescue.

The first was simple enough. I got into the water and Capt. Heims crawled out to me with a tether, got into the water, wrapped the rope around my waist and gave the guys on shore the signal to pull. As they pulled, Heims essentially lifted up my legs so I was horizontal and able to slide onto the ice.

Next it was my turn to do the same with Heims. Like him, I crawled out with the tether, got into the water and wrapped the rope around his waist and gave the signal to pull. Then it was my turn to lift his legs. At this point I’d like to note that I am 5-foot-3 and Heims is probably 6-foot-2 — and so it was not as easy for me as it was for him.

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Finally, we practiced self-rescue, which meant we had to pull ourselves out of the water — a feat that seems practically impossible for anyone who does not happen to fall in the ice water wearing one of those rescue suits.

The Mustang suit comes equipped with two ice picks — one attached to each sleeve — that you can use to dig into the ice and pull yourself out. Some upper body strength would help with this maneuver.

For those who don’t happen to own a Mustang rescue suit, screwdrivers sharpened to a point can serve the same purpose, Andrews said.

Once you get your hips up onto the ice, you can roll the rest of your body onto the ice as well or you can keep using those tools to pull yourself the rest of the way out.

However, the best way to avoid having to be rescued or rescue yourself from ice water, Andrews said, is to take care to ensure you don’t fall through the ice in the first place.

Andrews said it’s important to heed warnings about thin ice on lakes or ponds or any body of water one might venture out on.

Terry Trueblood Recreation Area — 579 McCollister Blvd. in Iowa City — issued a warning Thursday asking people to stay off the ice on the lake, especially since the area has seen mild days in the past few weeks.

Paying attention to weather conditions throughout the winter is also a good idea, Andrews said. If there have been several thaws and freezes, the ice may not be as thick or sturdy as expected.

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“Look at the quality of the ice,” he said. “If it’s honeycombed in appearance — or sponge-looking — do not go out on it. Snow cover on ice is a huge factor. Snow cover basically acts as an insulating blanket for the ice — like a blanket on your bed — and that can degrade the quality of the ice. And water on top of the ice is a huge red flag.”

Additionally, Andrews said best practices call for wearing a life jacket when you go out on the ice. There are some life jackets on the market that self-inflate when they touch the water, he said.

He also recommended carrying some sort of tools — like those two sharpened screwdrivers — an individual could use to dig into the ice and pull themselves out. Andrews also recommended spreading out in a single-file line when walking out on the ice.

“I will never say going out on the ice is safe because it’s not,” Andrews said. “But those are some simple ways to make it safer should people decide to do it anyway.”

I personally hope none of us ever need the fire department to pull us out of a frozen lake or pond. But, should we find ourselves in such a predicament, it’s reassuring to know the department is equipped and trained to dive in after us.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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