Fire On Ice: Lowell Area Fire Department Holds Ice Rescue Training

Members of the Lowell Area Fire Department respond to fires but they also respond to various rescue situations as well.  With various bodies of water in the Lowell community training for a rescue on ice is essential.  This past weekend practice rescue situations were conducted at Stoney Lakeside Park.  

Training Day

Fire departments from Alto, City of Muskegon, City Grandville, and Caledonia joined members of the Lowell team, training together for eight hours on Saturday, February 11.   Each department has its own in-house training with regards to ice and water but those who participated in the day long session earned their Ice Rescue Technician I certification after passing a final exam.  

The cost of this training was $4,200 but through the Michigan Firefighter Training Council local funds were not used.  An impact fee fund is set up to collect 6% of all fireworks sales across the state.  This fund is then used to cover the costs of firefighter training.  Captain Shannon Witherell has been with the Lowell Area Fire Department for 20 years.  “This training is very important for our staff due to the large amount of water we have within our protection area.” he says, looking out for the community.  “We strive to be prepared for a type of emergency that we maybe called to so that we may provide our citizens with the best trained and equip personnel at their time of need.”  The department responds to calls of people and animals which have fallen through the ice.  The number of these incidents each year depends on weather conditions.  

Instructed by three individuals from Michigan Rescue Concepts, participants learned about hypothermia care, how to test the thickness of ice, handling victims, and how to deal with various situations in which a rescue is needed when someone falls through the ice.  The first four hours of the class were spent indoors.  But the second half of the class was spent on the ice at Stoney Lake practicing the different situations in which a rescue would be necessary.  Members of the participating fire departments worked in pairs switching between being the victim and rescuer.  Instructors also tested students on what to do if something unusual happens such as a thrown rope going in a direction other than to the victim, what to do if a second person enters the scene trying to help only to become a victim, and how to handle victims who do not remain calm and helpful during a rescue.

Using ice picks is one option for getting out of the water.

Getting Out of the Water

Special rescue suits, which are waterproof, are worn when performing a water rescue on ice.  The first practical lesson was getting yourself out of the water in the event you fall through the ice.  One technique is merely pulling yourself up using the ice ledge.  A second option is using a hand-held ice pick which is jabbed into the ice allowing the person to pull himself or herself forward.  Then the processes is repeated until the person is able to get completely out of the water.  

In most scenarios a victim will need to be rescued from ice water after falling through.  Participants in the training class learned different techniques depending on the situation on how to best complete a successful rescue.  Communication is an important aspect for success.  The responder needs to know as much about the situation as possible and the victim needs to be reassured and follow directions throughout the process.  

The victim is asked if he or she is okay, if he or she is injured, and if he or she is alone.  The person there to rescue explains to the victim how he or she will be pulled out of the water and what directions should be followed.  The situation where the victim is unresponsive was also addressed during training.  Communication between members of the rescue group is also important.  Hand signals are used to indicate when tension or slack in a line is needed, when it’s time to pull a victim to safety, when to stop pulling on the rope, and if the responder gets into trouble and needs additional help.

Rescue by way of the pole.

The Reach Pole and Rope Throw

The first thing a rescuer must do is assess the situation.  If the victim fell through the ice because it was not thick enough the person coming to help does not want fall through.  A rope attached to a sling worn by the rescuer is held by at least two on shore or on safe ice.  The rope handlers will pull the victim and rescuer to safety when the time comes.  

A reach pole is used to determine whether the ice is thick enough for the rescuer to walk upon.  By tapping the ice with the pole the sound made helps judge a safe or unsafe thickness.  If the ice is too thin the rescue pole is used to reach the victim.  One end of the pole has a metal hook which can be stuck into the ice allowing for the pole to be secured.  The victim grabs hold of the pole and kicks his or her feet while pulling in order to rise above the ice.

Rescue performed using a rope.


Once the victim is out of the water he or she must be made buoyant in the event the ice breaks again.  At this time the rescuer uses a sling, resembling a pool noodle, which is placed under one or both arms of the victim.  The victim is secure when both hands are out in front and on top of the sling, as if flying, so they are not scraped while being pulled along the ice.  Both victim and rescuer are pulled to safety at the same time.  

Another option if the ice may be too thin for a rescuer to get near the victim is throwing a rope.  A rope is thrown to the victim who then wraps it around his or her wrists to secure the line.  The victim is told not to grab for the rope until after it’s thrown.  Reaching up to grab an incoming rope could result in the victim slipping under the water.  Once secure the rescuer pulls the victim out of the water.  

The sling is placed around the victim to aid in flotation and as a means to be pulled to safety.
Victim and rescuer being pulled to safety.


Part of the rescue teams waits for the signal before pulling the victim and rescuer to safety.

The Active and Inactive Victim

When a victim is active and able to communicate with the rescue team and the ice is thick enough for a responder to walk on the reach pole is not needed.  In this situation the responder is able to go directly to the victim where the sling is used and both people pulled to safety by the rope holders.

There may also be a situation when a victim is unresponsive.  In this instance the responder must go to the victim and secure him or her in the sling without any help from the person being rescued.  It may also be necessary enter the water with the victim to ensure he or she is facing the correct direction and to guide legs from going under the ice shelf which could lead to injury when being pulled out of the water.  

Ongoing Training

The Lowell Area Fire Department conducts its own water training at least once a year in addition to any special classes where certification is offered.  The department has also worked with the Lowell Police Department and city staff on CPR and bandaging wounds in recent weeks.  

Captain Witherell concludes, “We are thankful that we were able to bring this training to the area and certify our entire staff. This training gave us a[n] opportunity to work with other departments [to] sharpen our skills. It also gave us some insight to some equipment needs we are currently lacking to make our staff as safe and effective as possible when called upon for ice related calls.”  Additional specialty training later this year will include an agricultural and machinery rescue class.   Check out Lowell’s First Look’s album for more photos from this training event.

Area fire departments receive training on winter water rescue.

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