Thin ice: Rescue crews gearing up for seasonal calls

Dogs or people, Front Range pond ice usually too unreliable to be safe

Scott Taylor
staylor@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 1/26/21

His face covered in a mask, half-submerged in freezing water with all the traffic of Interstate 25’s morning rush hour behind him, Thornton Firefighter and Paramedic Blake McCarthy struggled to be …

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Thin ice: Rescue crews gearing up for seasonal calls

Dogs or people, Front Range pond ice usually too unreliable to be safe

Posted

His face covered in a mask, half-submerged in freezing water with all the traffic of Interstate 25’s morning rush hour behind him, Thornton Firefighter and Paramedic Blake McCarthy struggled to be heard by his teammates along the shore as he struggled to lift the mannequin up onto the ice shelf.

At the other end of the rope, a team waited for the word to start pulling the rope he’d wrapped around this charge.

Lt. Tom Willard, the trainer from the neighboring North Metro Fire and Rescue District, suggested next time using hand signals to tell his teammates to pull.

“We use the ‘tomahawk chop’ to tell them to pull,” Willard said. “You’re wearing the mask, in cold water with all that traffic noise behind you. It makes it pretty hard to be heard.”

This was a training exercise, but the outcome would be the same: once the victim was clear of the ice, the team would pull him to shore and treat him medically.

Willard said the rescue went as well as could be expected.

“It was a pretty thick ice shelf and I think the life jacket on the dummy got stuck, so he had to work through that,” he said. “When it gets stuck like that, the team has to stop pulling while you figure out what’s going on. You risk injuring the person and just making it worse. But you did it, you worked through it we got him out.”

The late winter weeks tend to see more ice rescues along Colorado’s Front Range, what with the air temperatures ranging from the mid-60s one week to sub-freezing the next. All that freezing and thawing can lead to ice of varying thickness on the same body of water. The neighborhood pond might support a whole hockey team in one spot, but a dog would sink through on the other side of the pond.

“And if the dog does break through the ice, don’t try to save it yourself,” said North Metro Fire District’s Public Information Officer Sara Farris. “If the ice won’t support a dog, it won’t support you.”

Common calls

Farris said ice rescues, ranging from small ponds to large reservoirs, tend to be one of the more common calls the departments respond to this time of year.

“People will call 911 when they just see kids on the ice, and we respond to come out and get them off of there, maybe give them education,” Farris said. “But the majority of ice rescues we get involved with start with a dog running out on the ice and then owner going out to try and save them.”

It’s why local fire departments train for those situations. Teams from Thornton Fire and North Metro — which covers both Northglenn and Broomfield — spent a few days in mid-January doing just that, on Thornton’s Civic Center park pond and Broomfield’s Siena Reservoir.

The scenario is usually the same: A rescue dummy is placed out in a hole in the ice somewhere in the middle of the bond. A firefighter must crawl out to the dummy, wrap it in a rope and lift it over the edge of the ice the team along the shore can pull it to safety with the rope.

“Sometimes, it’s easier to send a boat to the edge of the ice and do the rescue that way,” Farris said. The team has a boat they use if the situation calls for it, she said.

The two agencies train for ice rescues together because they’ll likely respond together and need some working together.

“No matter where you are, we need people to know that they are going to get the same level of service,” Farris said.

Ice rescue drills

Farris said crews tend to respond to ice rescues in minutes. At least one firefighter dons a waterproof immersion suit and then tries to reach the victim, sometimes by walking carefully, usually by crawling and sometimes by swimming. Then they ask three questions: Are you alone, what is your name and are you injured.

“Are you alone, that’s really the most important question,” Willard said. “We know right away if there is somebody else out there who may already be under the water. That’s really important because that’s going to mean that we need a dive team to go out.”

Then it’s a matter of getting the person clear of the ice, which is not always easy. The firefighter doesn’t always have good leverage to make lifting the person easy and the team doesn’t want to start pulling until the victim is clear.

“You have to be really careful with hypothermic people,” North Metro Lieutenant John Cook said. “The cold can make them very brittle and you risk injuring them further if you’re not really careful.”

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