Editor’s note: Reporter Jessica Campbell recently was invited to take part in ice rescue training with the La Porte Fire Department on Stone Lake in La Porte. This is a detailed description of the day, as told from Jessica’s point of view.
Growing up on Lake Michigan, you bet I took I advantage of it.
Every summer was buoy swimming and beach volleyball, kayaking, water skiing and watching the sunset devour Chicago’s skyline. Winter never stopped my “beach gang” either. New Year’s Day began with our type of polar bear swim or, for us, flying into the icy water, falling backward to make sure every inch of us would be red when we came out, and screaming toward the towels and parkas our laughing parents were holding out to us.
When I agreed recently to head out on Stone Lake and try the ice survival suits used by the La Porte Fire Department for ice rescues, I thought, “I’ve got this.”
And when it was over, I realized I didn’t feel the cold quite as much as those polar bear dunks in a swim suit, but the experience still left me shaken up.
These rescues are three to four minutes of cold temperatures, ice water and pure adrenaline.
I was given the opportunity to accompany each La Porte fire station during their annual ice safety training.
On Monday afternoon, I was set to meet Assistant Fire Chief A.C. Pressler at Cummings Lodge. When I arrived, he was already standing in the lake, knee-deep with chunks of hard ice floating around him.
We went inside the lodge, where he helped me quickly don the yellow survival suit, something that looked more like a HAZMAT suit without the face mask.
Instead of hazardous material, however, this suit protected my body, as well as the clothes I was wearing, from the 32-degree-or-below lake water. The suit was fairly lightweight and Pressler said it weighed a little more than a life jacket at best. It is made of different layers and is pretty well padded and insulated.
“There is a waterproof barrier and an insulation barrier,” Pressler said as I slid into it by sitting down and sliding each foot in. “The insulation doubles as a flotation device. From the head to the toe is buoyant.”
The neck clasp was the most difficult part to wriggle up – and the most important. If it wasn’t snug, and squishing your face together, then that dryness inside would not last long.
The La Porte Fire Department has three of the yellow suits, and is trying to replace the older versions they still have. The older version, which my “victim” – a member of the fire department – wore throughout the training, looked more like a wetsuit used in triathlons and did not have the multilayer components. It also had a few holes in it, letting my victim come closer to the real thing than he would have liked.
Pressler said two suits were donated a few years ago and the department received a $4,000 grant which funded the purchase of another suit, as well as the large red safety sled firefighters will use in some cases.
“(With) the new, modern suits, the technology is just better,” Pressler said. “We were pretty fortunate with the grant. Our plan is to get a couple more to replace the old suits and have nothing but the good ones out there.”
Into the cold
When the firefighters had me wrapped securely in the suit, Pressler, the victim and I began our journey toward the middle of the lake. The first few steps were navigating around slippery, small chunks of ice until I could step onto the thicker ice.
I walked arm-in-arm with Pressler, thinking we were going out to a designated place on the ice where I could jump into the water.
While my body weight was enough to hold me on the ice, Pressler would have had to lay down on his stomach to distribute weight so as not to break the ice.
However, he didn’t do that.
With my arm trapped, he jumped up and threw his weight down onto the ice, breaking it beneath him and dragging me sideways down into the water.
It was a shock. It wasn’t the cold, but the shock of being in the water surrounded by ice – and I was fine.
I was dry and laughing.
Pressler had hooked me to the tether being held by a few firefighters standing on the shore. The signal to be pulled out was to tap my head, Pressler had told me. So once I tapped, I quickly slid back to shore on my stomach like a flat water slide.
That experience – walking and unexpectedly falling into the water – is what Pressler calls being able to rescue yourself.
“The first thing they teach you is a self rescue, because if you can’t rescue yourself, then you have no business going in after somebody else,” he told me.
The annual training the departments take part in allow each firefighter a chance to wear the suit and practice the techniques needed for a successful rescue. The firefighters will go out on various lakes and at different areas of those lakes, Pressler said.
After self rescues and learning how to quickly put the suit on, they move on to saving victims and using the sled.
“You learn other techniques: Rescuing with a tether, rescuing without a tether,” he said.
While it varies among departments, La Porte uses a system with two station engines and about five to seven firefighters on a rescue.
“There are two guys from Station 2 and one guy will go out and one guy will be ready to go out just in case something happens to him, so they both show up in suits,” Pressler explained. “The guy driving the truck will just be in turnout gear and will be one of the guys on shore. The engine from Station 1 will show up with at least one guy in a suit and at least two guys ready to stay on shore.”
Three to four firefighters are in suits and the rest are back-ups and pullers, he said.
The need for the sled depends on the ice and situation, but it is helpful when used, Pressler continued.
“You’re not going to pull a person out of the lake and they are going to walk to shore,” he said. “They’re zapped. They have no energy, and when they get out, their clothes freeze instantly. They are like the Tin Man.”
The sled gets a victim back to the shore without having to be dragged across the ice. It is safer for him, Pressler said, but when it comes down to it, the number one thing is getting the victim out as soon as possible.
‘Doing something right’
The three- to four-minutes between a call and the rescue is within the as-soon-as-possible timeframe. That was the amount of time needed to rescue a young man who fell through the ice four years ago.
Pressler said it was an odd situation because just a few hours before the man fell, the fire department had been on the lake practicing rescue techniques.
At 5:30 p.m. on really cold night – a Friday, Pressler remembered – a man left a friend’s house and walked across the lake to get home. His friends said they saw him, then he disappeared.
“The guys showed up, jumped out of the truck in the suits, had the gear, had the rope and ran out there and plucked him out of the water,” Pressler said. “He couldn’t do anything; couldn’t move and had trouble breathing. He had probably been in the water for about 10 minutes.”
The man survived, and Pressler said the quick response of the team that night was due to the constant training and practice in getting the gear on and getting out the door.
“Of course, knowing what to do when you get there is important too,” he said. “But that was proof we are doing something right.”
When it comes to land surrounded by lakes and ponds as La Porte is, Pressler said, residents are usually aware of the dangers associated with the ice and there are not many ice rescues. The last was the incident four years ago.
“People are pretty good and are pretty smart about staying off the ice,” he said. “We really don’t get the opportunity for ice rescues and I think it has a lot to do with the people being educated.”
Even so, members of the fire department are out on the lake every year, studying and practicing.
When I finally reached my victim, who was actually firefighter James Snyder, I was instructed to jump in behind the struggling, cold individual and attach a tether to him so we could be pulled out by the men on shore. I then rescued him with the sled – with help from Pressler.
It was similar to lifeguard training: Approach from behind because the victim will grab you.
Though I fumbled with the tether and it took me a lot longer to drag the sled over the cracking ice than it would have one of the firefighters, I had fun learning the ropes.
I enjoyed the experience, and Pressler agreed it was fun to get out of the station or office from time to time.
Yet, throughout the rescue training, I could still hear the radios of the fire department as emergency calls continued to go out.
It was still business.