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Rescue training gives necessary skills to volunteers

Standing on the ice shelf of the Rundle forebay in the freezing cold of an early December morning, I began to question what was going through my head when I took the assignment.
Ice rescue training.
Ice rescue training.

Standing on the ice shelf of the Rundle forebay in the freezing cold of an early December morning, I began to question what was going through my head when I took the assignment.

A foot to my right, cold dark water lapped at the edge of the thin ice as I stood amidst six volunteer firefighter rookies taking an ice rescue course, and two deputy chiefs.

Suited up in personal protective equipment, we jumped up and down together, trying to crack through the surface and plummet into the freezing water.

Water rose slowly up, our feet and calves submerged and the ice finally gave way underneath our feet softly and without a sound.

Big chunks of ice floated around us as we bobbed up and down in the buoyant rescue suits, mine being about four sizes too big for me.

Instructor and deputy chief Rob Evans-Davies, also in the water, reminded us all how to self-rescue out of the water – head down, kick and then roll.

Kick, roll and repeat several times and I begin to feel that if, by chance, I were to ever fall through the ice, I would in fact be able to save myself.

And if not, watching the rookies train to become ice rescue technicians and knowing all firefighters in Canmore have this training and continually practice it, was a comfort. It means should anyone fall through ice and need rescue, the men and women tasked with this service have the skills needed to save lives.

Without the training, Canmore’s fire department will not let its members within 10 metres of still frozen water and the training should not be confused with swift water rescue.

“That is why we put everyone through ice rescue training,” Evans-Davies said.

All certified in the course should be capable of hazard recognition, equipment use and techniques to co-ordinate, perform or supervise a rescue on ice of a body of water that does not have a current.

Evans-Davies said Canmore does not perform ice rescues in moving water because it does not take much current to move a person, even a rescuer, under the ice.

He said firefighters need ongoing training over the years to retain skills so that if needed, they can respond to an incident quickly.

Rookie volunteer firefighter Scott Stein said in signing up for the job he expected to go through lots of training, that it would be intense and he would need to be physically fit.

“You definitely want to have the proper training and I expected to get the intense training we did,” he said. “The ice training was pretty intense… realizing the situations people can get in was a real eye-opener.”

Repetition, said Stein, is an important part of training as it reinforces the step-by-step actions needed to perform specific tasks. When lives are at risk, that’s key.

“The training has to be there so when it comes down to it, we are prepared.”

When falling into cold water, the most important thing to remember, Evans-Davies said, is to stay calm because the first minute is critical.

“You have one minute to get your breathing under control,” he said.

The shock of the cold will result in a gasp reflex and blood from extremities moves toward the core to keep it warm. The coldest water is just beneath the surface of the ice.

After that first minute, depending on ability, a person in the water who is able to hang onto the ice would have about 10 minutes of meaningful activity before losing consciousness.

Self rescue is always the first option, but rescuers are usually called after a person is in the water, meaning after responding emergency personnel need to prepare for evacuation once they leave the hall.

After more than an hour in the water, which is 4 C in these types of circumstances, rescue often becomes recovery.

Evans-Davies said in Canmore the department is lucky because the forebay offers an excellent training and practice location for the ice rescue course.

He said the department has gotten to know the nature of its ice well over the years and it can be both thick and thin, which is good for practicing rescues.

“We put a lot of effort into what we teach and where we train,” he said. “Training is a big big thing.”

One of the fundamentals of training for rescuers in any situation is to understand risk. A third of all drownings, he said, occur with would-be rescuers.

That means reducing risk and understanding what levels of risk are acceptable are not only important for the victim, but for keeping those responding to the scene as well.

“We provide the appropriate training in order to do the job safely,” he said. “Running these courses makes a big difference.”

Understanding risk goes hand in hand with understanding the properties of ice and the factors that can affect its strength and thickness.

“Looking at the ice and reading it is an important thing to do,” Evans-Davies said. “Thickness is only one factor and it changes dramatically over a body of water due to different freezing rates.”

Other factors that should be considered are recent temperature changes, snow coverage, wind and water levels. Decreasing water levels, for example, weaken ice because it removes support from underneath.

Four inches of ice supports ice fishing, six a snowmobile, eight to 12 a car and 12-15 a truck. However, if the temperature has been above freezing for 24 hours, those minimums become unreliable.

A light wind as well can speed formation of ice while a strong wind can slow it down, create mixing and force water on top of existing ice.

Clear black ice is the strongest and bubble-filled ice is at least 50 per cent weaker.

“Ice is never static,” Evans-Davies said. “It is either doing one thing or the other and constantly changing.”

As ice melts, he added, it maintains its thickness and does not melt down into a thin sheet. It goes ‘rotten’ or decays, causing a candling effect – an important thing for rescuers to note if they are stepping out onto a sheet of ice.

Cracking of the ice can also provide crucial information. Different types of cracks have different implications for whether the ice can continue to hold a load.


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