Ice rescue not for untrained
South Lake Tahoe firefighters will likely find themselves on thin ice in the line of duty this winter.
Of the more serious dangers presented by winter conditions – to both humans and animals – is the possibility of falling through frozen bodies of water.
Such mishaps occur only about four or five times a season and mostly to pets. When it does happen, it’s up to firefighters to brave frigid waters and bring the victim to safety.
“The fire department has gone from a fire department to an all-hazard department,” said Capt. Brad Jackson. “(Ice rescues) occur predominately in the (Tahoe) Keys and mostly to dogs.”
Firefighters advise non-trained persons to contact authorities when a pet or person falls through the ice.
“The layman rescuer is apt to run out and try to make the rescue themselves,” said firefighter Scott Douglass. “It happens so often that we are responding to the second victim and the guy he was trying to save.”
When South Shore resident Brady Hodge’s dog went through the ice in 1995, he disregarded the danger and went in after the pet. Hodge, a former Santa Cruz County lifeguard, made a successful rescue, but he discourages anyone from repeating his actions.
“I had an older golden retriever which had chased a raccoon from the end of a boat dock onto the ice and he fell through,” Hodge said. “At the time I was unaware that the fire department conducted rescues, so I went in after him. It is almost like having a family member out there crying for help. Would I do it again? Probably. Would I recommend that other people do it? Absolutely not. I would tell them to call 911.”
The trained rescuers examine a specific sequence of options to determine the best means of rescue, while ensuring their own safety. Under the best-case scenario, the firefighters conduct the rescue from shore, where they are farthest from harm’s way. However, the rescuers are prepared go out on the ice if it is the only way the victim can be rescued.
Firefighters from three stations had training sessions on Wednesday and Thursday at the Tahoe Keys.
“We (say), reach, throw, row, and go,” Douglass said. “The absolute last choice is to go after them in the water.”
When the only option for a rescue is to go on the ice, the firefighters have confidence in their training and in the tools at their disposal.
“We have really good equipment and we’re prepared,” said firefighter Sean Ward.
The primary tool used by the fire department is the Holmatro Board. The Holmatro board is a buoyant 10-foot by 2-foot sled with handles. It comes equipped with a throw bag, paddles and a snare for retrieving dogs. The rescuer can either push the Holmatro along the ice to get to the victim, or if ice conditions are too unstable the rescuer can lay face down on the sled and propel it across the frozen surface using hand picks.
“We’ve had the (Holmatro board) for awhile,” said firefighter Jeff Valney. “We use winter training as a refresher. Some of these guys are getting so good we can start training at 9 a.m. and be out of here before 10.”
During the session, a firefighter wearing a dry suit acts as the victim who has fallen through the ice. A rescuer, using the Holmatro board maneuvers to the victim and retrieves him from the water. Another firefighter pulls both to shore with a tether.
“I think (the Holmatro board) is one of the best vehicles for rescue out there, and they don’t make them anymore,” Jackson said.
“You can throw a handful of people in the water and get them out with relative ease,” said Capt. Brad Piazzo.
Once the rescuers reach the victim, they must use extreme caution. One of the biggest threats to the safety of the rescuer is the victim.
“In real life, when people are scared, they don’t look at you as a person,” Jackson said. “They look at you as a float and they will grab hold of you and pull you under. They don’t mean to, but they do.”
Despite any dangers presented in retrieving a victim from frigid water, the firefighters must act fast. It’s critical when a person or animal is immersed in water that may be 32 degrees or lower.
“(Time of survival) varies depending on the size of the person, but they will probably last five to 10 minutes,” Valney said. “A dog could last a little longer. If you fall through the ice you are in big trouble.”
Falling through the ice with no around presents a grave situation for the victim. Struggling to get out of the icy water would most likely prove futile, but the South Tahoe Fire Department has some advice that may aid in a person’s chances of survival.
“When people break through the ice they can’t pull themselves out because they slip,” Valney said. “If they have car keys or pens they might be able to poke them into the ice. It would give them something to grab. If they are out there ice fishing it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a couple of picks around their neck.”
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