As winter comes upon us, first responders may find themselves in situations where frozen bodies of water present a variety of hazards. From icebergs to broken ice, emergency response teams must know how to navigate these conditions to save lives.
Identifying Ice Hazards
First responders must be prepared to respond to an ice rescue, a confined space rescue, or hazmat operations. That means putting the appropriate training, equipment, and personnel into place. Identifying hazards on the ice surface before venturing out is the best way to prevent accidents. The first step is to determine the ice thickness.
If it is thin or broken, be careful to stay away from areas with current such as inlets and outlets. Also, watch out for slushy ice or light spots.
Ice’s strength depends on several factors, including water level fluctuations and the actions of birds and fish. Generally, small bodies of water freeze thicker than large bodies.
Identifying the Victim
The victim of a cold water and ice rescue incident must be identified before any effort to assist can begin. This is especially true for victims trapped beneath the ice and, even more, important if the victim has been hypothermic.
When an ice storm occurs, fire and rescue personnel must be trained in aquatics safety and water rescue principles, including cold water survival and the procedures for identifying a victim once submerged below the ice surface. They should also be equipped to perform basic shore-based ice rescues, such as throwing a line or rescue throw bag to the victim or extending an object or device from shore.
Upon arriving on the scene, it is necessary to identify thin ice and assess the water’s depth, currents, and clarity. Once this is determined, rescuers should move horizontally under the ice sheet using a pike pole and probe along the bottom. This can often result in the victim being found directly beneath the ice ledge or even within it if no currents exist.
Preparing for a Rescue
When an ice storm occurs, first responders need to be prepared. This requires a comprehensive threat analysis, developing SOPs, and equipping personal protective equipment.
In addition, first responders must be trained in using specialized equipment such as cold water rescue suits. A complete understanding of how ice is formed and the factors that determine the strength of the ice are also essential.
This training should be incorporated into every Fire and Rescue Department’s Emergency Preparedness Program. It is also recommended that all personnel in the fire service receive annual ice safety and rescue training.
First responders need to have the skills to conduct safe, practical rescues. This means knowing how to assess water and ice conditions, performing risk/benefit analysis, utilizing rope systems and equipment specific to water rescue, and operating personal protective gear and medical considerations.
It also means having the ability to self-rescue if necessary. For this, you need to be able to reach the victim, and there are many ways to do this, including throwing or getting something to them.
There are also a variety of techniques for moving across the ice. One beneficial approach is using ice awls.
However, it’s essential to remember that ice strength and thickness can differ significantly from one location to another. It may be one foot thick in one area but only one inch thick ten feet away. This can affect how you approach the ice and your ability to complete a rescue.