VARGO: Up-close training

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2015 at 1:57 PM

I slipped into the training room at the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety building as Holt emphasized how important it is to assess a situation before rushing out on the ice to rescue someone.

Although I couldn’t be there for the entire training session, I needed to be there long enough to learn some safety tactics before I slipped on what I call a “Gumby” suit and took my turn in the hole in the ice. I wanted a chance to get at least a vague idea of what our area emergency crews go through when they tackle a rescue on the ice.

Police, firefighters and the Coast Guard have been taking advantage of icy conditions recently to practice ice rescue training on the Grand River, in the bayous and on Lake Michigan. Grand Haven public safety officers will be out again next week.

During the classroom session, Holt showed a video of a situation in which a youth went through the ice after sledding onto a lake in Southern California. The video showed what people unfamiliar with the icy conditions will do, Holt said. Many people went out on the ice to help the youth, and then to try to help the additional people who fell through the ice.

As the morning segued into early afternoon, our group learned how to tie some monarch knots in the safety tether, and then worked our way into the rescue suits. The dry suits have built-in boots and gloves.

Just try pulling up that heavy-duty zipper with large, clumsy gloves that give you no dexterity! And we did it in a warm, dry environment. Rescuers would normally be pulling on these outfits under more extreme conditions.

Holt demonstrated how to "burp" air out of the suits so that your legs could actually descend into the water, rather than floating you like a balloon on the top. My hands were so clumsy, I couldn’t quite master that little exercise, but still managed to force my legs down once I got into the water.

The group went to Government Basin where members of Coast Guard Station Grand Haven demonstrated their techniques before turning over the hot-tub-size hole in the ice.

“It’s been hard to keep the hole open in this weather,” Senior Chief Kirk McKay said.

I volunteered as quickly as I could to be the "victim."

It turns out that it is actually warmer in the water than standing on the ice.

“The water is 32 degrees — the air is 22 degrees," Grand Haven public safety officer Tom Winegar noted.

I offered to go back in again.

Officers took turns trying different rescue techniques, including a ladder and a basket. They emphasized the use of safety lines, how they should be attached to people and equipment to keep them from going under the ice, the hand signals needed because they couldn’t talk to each other, and how important the secondary rescuer is in keeping the primary rescuer and the victim safe.

All of the training operations were done in daylight, low wind conditions and moderate temperatures, compared to the past couple of weeks.

The group moved to Chinook Pier, where officers were given a scenario to rescue a victim in the open water near the power plant. Conditions weren’t quite as kind here as officers had to work across a much bigger distance, swim to the victim, get him into a basket, and try to get him out of the water and onto ice that kept breaking.

“I guarantee you he will be totally exhausted when he gets back here,” Holt said of the primary rescuer on the exercise.

The officers also do training on the Lake Michigan ice, where severe winter conditions have caused ice formations miles out into the lake.

Despite the thickness, the ice on Lake Michigan is nowhere near safe, Holt said. The ice is clouded with bubbles, sand grates on it from below, and wave action causes the ice to constantly heave and crack, he said.

“It’s never frozen solid,” Holt said.

When it starts to thaw in the spring, there will be lateral currents and bad areas between the icebergs, he said.

“If someone’s not out there when you fall through, we might not ever know you were even there,” Holt said.

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