MORRIS – Most people couldn’t imagine cutting a hole in 12-inch thick ice to jump in the water during freezing temperatures, but the Morris Fire Protection & Ambulance District employees aren’t most people.
Staff from the district are spending the week practicing ice and water rescue in a lake behind Capt. Chris Kindlespire’s home in Morris.
“Because our fire district encompasses a lot of area with water, it’s important to train for rescue,” Fire Chief Tracey Steffes said.
The men don the department’s Mustang Suits, Ice Commander Ice Rescue Suits, that are located on each rig to act out victim and rescuer scenarios to prepare themselves for a real-life rescue.
“I can’t think of an ice rescue in recent times, but we have had them in the area before,” Steffes said. “The training also helps with water rescue, which we had last April. In dealing with the flood, we still had water temperatures that can create hypothermia.”
This time of year isn’t the typical time for ice rescues, as most of the ice is frozen several inches thick, Steffes said. This year, due to the extremely cold temperatures, it’s very thick in areas where there isn’t flowing water. They use this time to train for when the ice is thinner, like it will be in the upcoming spring as the ice starts to thaw making it more dangerous to be on.
He said as the temperatures warm up there could be people who have been enjoying the ice, skating and snowmobiling, who don’t realize it’s become dangerous. There is no way to tell how many days of warm weather it takes until the ice becomes compromised.
“The only time we can train on the ice is in the winter time,” Steffes said. “It’s best to train in an environment they have to use the skills and suit in. We want to train as close as possible to real-life scenarios.”
Capt. Dave Wiechen, who was at Tuesday morning’s training, said staff start the season every November checking the equipment on each rig. They check the special rope used, that floats on the water, and go over the knots that have to be at certain spots for the rescue.
They also have a class to go over patient care and how the firefighters can help the EMS with the patient. If they’ve been in the icy water, they need to be treated gently.
“After we’ve checked the equipment in November we review ice rescue training,” Capt. Wiechen said. “We wait until January or February to train on the ice. This year was tough because of the cold temperatures. Below zero is tough.”
They need enough ice to train on to get the technique down – but they don’t want it so thin that it endangers the trainees.
Wiechen said, everyone gets a chance to take part in the training, as the district trains both day and night, so that firefighters can train on the shift they work, best simulating the experience they may face.
“If you think they’re not scared? They’re all scared,” Steffes said. “It’s a risk-benefit. We’ll risk everything to save everything, if there is nothing to save we’re not going to take the risk.”
Steffes said the suits cost the department anywhere between $300 and $700 each, and the district has been lucky enough to get grants to pay for many of them.
“I hope they are never used in a real-life rescue, but we need them when called upon to do our job.” Steffes said. “And we have used them in rescue and recovery in the past.”
Steffes said the training is imperative to the safety of both the rescuers and the person they are trying to save.
“When time comes for them to go into action, that’s when you see the benefit of the training,” Steffes said.
Firefighter Mike Kucia said it’s important to get the actual feel of the rescue.
“Hands on versus talking about it helps with dealing with the environment, getting cold, and wet is different then talking about it,” he said. “I am 100 percent comfortable saving someone.”