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On Thin Ice: Firefighters Practice Rescues

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
April 4, 2007

Members of the Durham Fire Department took advantage of the warm weather melting the ice on the outdoor pool last week to test their rescue techniques.

The men donned ice rescue suits—an evolved version of the North Atlantic exposure suits that are often worn by fishermen. With boots and gloves, they can go into any body of water, regardless of the temperature.

“It’s great even in water that’s five degrees. You could stay alive for hours,” said Captain Mike Hoffman. “We’ll go into anything wearing these.”

Connected to a tether held by a fellow emergency worker, a fireman crawled out on the ice, trying to distribute his weight so he wouldn’t sink. But it was too soft and he kept falling through. That meant he had to swim through the chucks to get to the dummy floating on the other side of the pool.

“That’s not easy. Every time he moves, those pieces of ice are jabbing at him,” Hoffman said.

More importantly, swimming instead of inching along the top of the ice slows rescuers down, Hoffman said. They can make much better time if they can navigate across the ice, particularly with the help of an ice pick that’s attached to the sleeve of the rescue suit.

Other helpful aids include flippers, used in open water if there’s no ice, a rubber sled the victim can crawl up on and be floated back to shore, and a teardrop shaped floatation device the rescuer wears sung over his head and one arm as he swims and can then be easily transferred to the person in trouble.

The Durham department conducts the training at least once a year. Every shift has a designated “runner,” as the water rescuers are known, who is qualified to make a water rescue attempt if necessary.

“Everybody goes through the training,” Hoffman said. “We’ve had episodes, on the bay, in the rivers. We want to be prepared.”

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