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Ice breakers

Firefighters hone ice rescue skills on Flathead Lake

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POLSON — “Remember if you go through the ice, put your arms out to the side, bend your knees … and tip your chin up,” International Dive Rescue Instructor Jake Lozenby told his class of firefighters, search and rescue, law enforcement and marine patrol personnel. 

Lozenby’s class was about to follow Dave Moore’s class onto the ice in front of Swanee’s Bar and Grill, formerly Raleigh’s, on Feb. 20.

Moore and Lozenby were teaching a surface ice rescue trainer course to 30 folks from around Montana, Idaho and Washington. Graduates of their course could return to their groups and instruct the rest of the group on surface ice rescue.

Usually the classes are limited to 20 people, but International Dive Rescue sent two instructors to accommodate the larger group.

Polson Fire Chief John Fairchild said Polson was pretty lucky to be able to put on a class of this caliber. 

Moore and Lozenby used DVDs and lectures to bring the group up to speed on rescue techniques and equipment.

Hosted by the Polson Volunteer Fire Department, the class began on Feb. 19 at the new Fairgrounds Fire Station, packing the meeting room with bodies and the parking lot with vehicles. One of the advantages of holding the training is that Polson firefighters Bruce Gerlach, Drew Hoel and Chris McGuinness attended the class free of charge and will now be able to train the rest of the firefighters.

On Saturday, the classes again met at the Fairgrounds Fire Station at 8 a.m. before hitting the ice at about 10 a.m.

A three-man reconnaissance team suited up in their waterproof Mustang suits, which keep them dry and warm in cold water, to venture far out onto frozen Flathead Lake and saw some holes in the ice. The water beneath the lake’s six inches or so of ice had to be at least six feet deep for the training. One of the class noted “it’s not much fun to practice rescuing someone if they’re standing on the bottom of the lake.”

Also the instructors wanted an edge of ice on open water for the class to practice rescues. When the depth finally measured six to eight feet, the reconnaissance team used a chain saw to cut two rectangular holes in the ice about the size of two doors.

On shore, classmates helped each other into bright yellow, orange and red cold-water survival suits or dry suits. McGuinness explained the dry suits are really for open water. The suits keep their wearer buoyant, floating on his or her back, so sometimes a rescuer may need to use ankle weights to keep upright in the water.

Then the two classes headed out on the ice loaded down with various sleds, ropes, harnesses, a gaff hook and throw bags, bags loaded with rope which rescuers can throw to a victim.

“Victims” hopped into the frigid water and teammates rescued them, engaging the victims in conversation to keep them alert and asking them to grip ropes attached to sleds, a gaff hook, or sometimes wrapping a rope around their arm. The two classes also practiced team rescues, where a member of the rescue group got into the water behind the victim to help stabilize and maneuver the victim onto the ice. Team rescues are common since a person who falls through the ice into cold water may be a victim of hypothermia, some symptoms of which are fatigue and loss of brain function.

After a full day of hands-on ice rescues, the class met again on Feb. 21 for oral and written testing and an exit interview.

Fairchild said not only will the class members be able to take the training back to their home stations, but they might be out ice fishing and be able to save someone’s life. 

“The class is meant to increase the safety of the rescuer and the safety of all rescues in the future,” Moore explained.


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