Ice rescue training in March seems late in the season, but it's just the time of year when the North Shore Fire Department receives calls for assistance. Ice weakens, people and animals crash through into frigid water, as happened over the weekend with fatal results in Menomonee Falls.
"It is the best time to train," said Lt. Dan Farkas, directing one of the training rotations at Brown Deer pond. "You are not having a rescue when there is two feet of ice."
Firefighters trained over a three-day period last week. By the last day, the ice was gone, cut and chopped over the two-previous days. However, the water was a bone-chilling 34 degrees, and most of the rescue techniques could be practiced.
The training had to be canceled earlier in the year. It was too cold.
"Once you get out on a day like that, you freeze solid," said Firefighter Chris Chiappa, working with the other training group.
Suits, inflatable boat used
The department has special ice rescue gear, including rubberized suits, boots, gloves and headgear that leaves only the nose and eyes exposed.
"It's always nice to get the guys into the suits," Chiappa said. "They have a different feel."
The suits are buoyant and help keep the rescuers afloat.
Chiappa's group is working with an inflatable rescue boat, simulating a situation where a person has either fallen through the ice and cannot get out or is trapped on ice.
Firefighters swim out into the middle of the pond to simulate victims, waiting for rescue. The victims also wear the protective suits, which do a fine job of keeping all of them warm.
"Once in a while your fingers get a little cold," said Lt. Joe Gosse.
"The rule of thumb is 50 degrees, 50 minutes," Battalion Chief Jeff Weigand said.
The rescue boat, called a rapid deployment craft, can be filled using an air bottle in 30 seconds.
"You carry it as far as you can and then paddle," Chiappa said.
The boat has low sides, allowing firefighters to easily pull a victim into the boat.
Farkas' group is practicing the more conventional rescue.
"It's called reach, throw and go," he said.
They try to reach the victim with a pipe pole or ladder, or throw a bag on a line and pull the victim to safety. But if that's not possible, the rescuers go into the water.
Training can be dangerous
"You never want to go near the water without your suit on," Farkas said. "In Lake Michigan, the water is volatile and will shove you under the ice shelves.
The department trains in different spots every year. Last year, they were in Kletzsch Park in the Milwaukee River.
"The ice was breaking up and the ice chunks were going underneath us and hitting us in the legs," Farkas said. "It gets scary."
Whenever a firefighter ventures out into the open water, he has a rope around his waist. Two other firefighters tend the rope and there is always a back up firefighter ready to help with the rescue if necessary.
There is a rope on the inflatable boat as well, with firefighters at the ready to pull rescuers and victims to safety.
Although Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River come to mind as possible locations for ice rescues, Farkas said there are a few small lakes and ponds throughout the North Shore, particularly in River Hills and Glendale.
The department, thus far, got through the ice season without needing to make a rescue. The last one was about two years ago.
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