On the ice in sub-zero temperatures, two rural Wisconsin fire departments train for some of the worst conditions that Northern winters can throw at rescuers.
Where winter is long and cold, rural volunteer firefighters go to frozen lakes to practice ice rescue techniques.
You might expect the sight of fire trucks lined up on the road to draw a crowd of curious neighbors. Maybe it does, and the people who live in houses lining the lake are inside where it’s warm, watching with binoculars.
But these volunteers are used to having most of their training go unnoticed by the communities they serve. And they train anyway, even when they could spend that Saturday ice fishing or snowmobiling. Because you never know when your department will get the call for an SUV that missed a turn, a snowmobile that skipped into open water, or even a bulldozer that’s gone through the ice.
On a recent Saturday, the thermometer sat at 10 below zero when my husband and I left home for joint training with one of our mutual aid partners, the Town of Langlade Fire Department. Bill is the assistant chief of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department. I’m a member of the Auxiliary, which assists our small department in search-and-rescue (SAR) operations. It was the first time our auxiliary had participated in ice rescue training, and the first ice rescue experience for some of our newer firefighters. Altogether, 20 people spent their Saturday in the classroom and on the ice.
For the firefighters, the training was focused on learning to use specialized equipment like survival suits, buoyancy rescue slings, and an inflatable Rapid Deployment Craft (RDC), and learning to belay the ropes used to tether people and equipment. Our department bought the equipment in 2011, using a generous grant from a local foundation to fund the purchase.
For the auxiliary, this training was about learning to track human resources in a challenging environment. We do fast and furious record keeping, called “scribing,” for our incident commanders as they manage SAR operations. In the 24 years since our SAR team formed, we’ve scribed searches for lost hunters, lost rafters, lost horseback riders, lost mountain bikers, and one tornado.
But ice and cold present a new set of challenges. So on this cold day, we were observing while the scribes of Langlade’s Fire Department kept track of our people on and off the ice. With ropes, chain saws (used to cut ice out to deep enough water), stray snowmobiles on the lake, and the ever-present potential for falls (yep, that was me), there’s a lot to keep track of.
At the end of the day when everyone was off the ice safely, we debriefed from the training (and finished the cookies) back at the Town of Langlade’s station. That’s when the instructor suggested setting up a night ice rescue training for us. Chances are better than good that the call for an ice rescue would come when it’s dark.
We’ve scribed in the dark — and in rain, fog, mosquitoes, heat and what we thought were cold temperatures. But a night ice rescue at 10 or 20 below zero? That’s the kind of scenario you want to think about and train for before your people are out there on the ice.
So we went home and started making notes and circulating emails exploring questions that came up as a result of the training. For example:
Where can we get a bus on short notice to use as a heated warming/staging area?
Do we have head lamps that will stay on over the survival suit hoods?
Do we have enough head lamps for incident commanders, multiple scribes and safety officers, and all the rope tenders as well as people in the survival suits?
Can we afford more lifejackets right now? Standard operating procedure in ice rescue is that no one goes on the ice unless they’re wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). Our PFDs were sized with summer river rescues in mind. We didn’t have enough PFDs large enough to fit over winter outerwear for all the people at the training, so some who would have gone on the ice had to stay on what passes for shore when it’s under a few feet of snow.
Funding is always a struggle for small rural departments like ours. Grants help, but it takes time to research and write grant proposals, time for the money to come through. And time is a precious resource on volunteer departments, where members have family, work and other community obligations to balance along with fire department fundraising and training.
We may have enough money for more PFDs from recent donations made to the department by people who’ve seen our training at work — a lost hunter found, a large wildland fire brought under control. We don’t bill for our services (that would require another volunteer to handle the paperwork). But those who can afford to and some who cannot often show their thanks in a nice card with a check enclosed. Those checks are often converted into specialized equipment we hope will only ever be used in training.
But it might be this weekend that someone misses a turn, or uses excessive speed and too little judgment. (I’m finding it hard to imagine a bulldozer breaking through here.) And as our instructor noted, “Trying to use a fire hose to reach a victim is like pushing a wet noodle.”
So like rural fire departments everywhere, we plan, prepare, train and equip to keep our people safe under extreme conditions. And to protect those in our community who would go out on unstable ice to help someone else, if they didn’t have us to call on.
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Donna Kallner is a self-employed fiber artist from White Lake, Wisconsin.