Courier Staff Writer
Snow. Fog. Temperatures just below freezing. Standing on the breezy fairgrounds, firefighter Jerred Reed was warm.
Reed was training in one of the Eldon Fire and Rescue’s new Mustang suits, designed to allow emergency personnel to jump into an icy river after a victim falls into the water or is trapped on the dangerously thin ice of a pond.
“I’m sweating right now,” Reed said, describing the effectiveness of the bright yellow suit after climbing out of the water.
He and four other firefighters were wrapped in the material from the top of their heads to the top of their ankles, where black rubber boots took over. They were at the Wapello County Fairgrounds, near the adjoining pond.
The Eldon training officer kept sending a yellow-suited “victim” out into the center of the pond, then, after they were situated, a rescuer to bring them to shore. The wet snow coming down was actually a good thing, First Assistant Chief Ray Schafer said.
“It’s going to be inclement weather when we get a call,” he guessed. “This is good training weather.”
He and another officer observing the training said there was no way they could have purchased the suits and accompanying gear without help. The suits are more than a thousand dollars each. Even the long plastic-looking stick they use to give a victim a floatation device cost about $250. But it’s no stick, said a firefighter. It’s actually a strong, carbon fiber “reach pole” specially designed for cold-water rescue.
“We’re so thankful to the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation,” said Second Assistant Chief Linda Manley.
The whole bill for the basic water rescue set came to $15,000, funded by a foundation grant.
In addition to the pole, the suits, a floatation “collar” and other miscellaneous gear that allows a rescue to occur. Schafer said even Eldon’s basket used to pull a victim out of the water while immobilizing them for safety was now surrounded by bright orange floats. It allows rescuers to take it out into the water and will float with an adult strapped to it.
But so, too, will a firefighter in a Mustang suit.
“It’s like having three or four life jackets on me at one time,” said Reed.
In fact, explained Manley, her personnel actually have to struggle to keep the suit from lifting their entire body to the surface; one’s face might get cold, but as a safety feature, the suit tries to force wearers to float comfortably on their back.
“See, she’s having to work constantly to keep her feet down,” she said of one trainee.
When an observer from the community — several turned out to watch — joked about whether one of the firefighters in the cold pond could even swim, Manley replied, “You don’t have to know how to swim in these things.”