Training Days: Ice Rescue Drill

By Tom Kiurski

As training coordinator for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue, my focus is on training our firefighters. Although I don't claim to be a great trainer, I have attended seminars and conferences, and have listened to many speakers. Having lived in Michigan all my life, I also know how important it is to train for ice rescues.

For this drill, I called on two of our captains who have plenty of expertise in this area. Both are members of the area's technical rescue team. After we had scouted a suitable body of water and had several weeks of cold weather (the Michigan weather was a little overzealous in helping us with this drill!), we were ready to begin. After taking all the necessary safety measures, we cut two holes in the ice.One hole was for practicing self-rescue techniques that would become necessary if the rescuers fell through a weakened patch of ice while en route to providing aid. The second hole would be used to practice ways to help a victim who fell through the ice.

Initially, the basics of ice rescue were reviewed. It is estimated that about 60 percent of all ice rescue victims are would-be rescuers, including bystanders who fall through while attempting to help others. The importance of recognizing an emergency and calling the fire department cannot be stressed enough. It is important to know the rescuers are on the way. Ice can be quite deceptive, so being prepared is of the utmost importance.

An overview of the scene on arrival tells us some of the things we should anticipate. If it is dark or it soon will be dark, lights should be set up. Since it usually is cold, we need to e for a rehab area. Also, consider what specialized equipment will be needed from your department and mutual-aid resources. Call for them early. Interview witnesses to find out as much as you can about the circumstances of the situation you are facing. Have other firefighters try to talk to the victim(s).

The order of operations at an ice rescue is reach, throw, row, and then go! First, try to extend items for the victim to grab, such as your longest pike pole. Try throwing a rope or other buoyant item to the victim if you are far away and are not yet ready to get closer. Next, try using watercraft that can be rowed or any other specialty equipment. If these approaches do not help, you will have to go in after your victim(s).

In the self-rescue scenario of this drill, a firefighter enters the hole and then tries to remove himself from the hole. If the victim has fallen through the ice, the firefighter must be prepared to do the same. In this drill, picks are used to pull the firefighter out, or the firefighter is removed by the rope to which he is tied. The picks are kept handy, attached to the dry suit.


(1) Firefighters practice removing a victim from cold water with help from a flotation device and a team manning the rope. Click to enlarge

In the second hole, firefighters try to rescue a simulated victim. A firefighter in a dry suit is placed in the hole and instructed in the actions he should take. If the firefighter is lucky, the victim can assist when he gives directions. Sometimes, however, the victim becomes frightened and fights the firefighter, or the victim may be nearly unconscious and helpless. The next evolution involves transferring the flotation ring from the firefighter's shoulder to the victim's shoulder by grabbing the victim's arm and moving it with the firefighter's free arm. The firefighter then enters the water and slips the flotation device under the victim's arms and signals for the shore team to pull the rescuer and the victim to safety.


(2) Simulating a firefighter who fell through ice, this member practices self-rescue by "climbing" out of the water with sharp picks that are attached to the suit. Click to enlarge

Although the weather is always cold when we do this training, it is extremely beneficial to use equipment that is seldom used. Getting a chance to go through this equipment while on land, seeing where it is located in the vehicle, and getting hands-on training with it can prove to be the differences between life and death.

Tom Kiurski is training coordinator, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book, Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999), is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.

Subjects: Ice rescue, training drills.

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