The Ottumwa Courier

January 10, 2013

Ottumwa firefighters fall through ice to learn rescue techniques

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — While people don’t fall through the ice very often in Ottumwa, firefighters make sure they’re trained on the latest techniques to get someone out safely.

Firefighter Chris Cale instructed a group of firefighters on how to rescue a person who has fallen through the ice Wednesday afternoon at Ottumwa Park.

Firefighter Rich Damm said the firefighters do ice rescue training every chance they get during the winter.

Fortunately, he said, the department doesn’t get many calls of people falling through the ice.

“Most of the time we see people ice fishing in pairs, though not right next to each other,” Damm said. “It’s dangerous to go by themselves.”

Thankfully in Ottumwa Park, a lot of traffic bypasses the pond on Wapello Street, and drivers could likely see if someone was in trouble, Damm said, but on rural or farm ponds, that’s not the case.

“It’s a big safety factor a lot of people take for granted,” he said. “They think, ‘It’ll never happen to me.’”

He said no matter how thick you think the ice is, you should always make sure it’s safe. Better yet, said Capt. Pat Short, just stay off the ice.

Ottumwa’s ponds are safer, Damm said, because there isn’t a current that could push a victim under and trap them beneath the ice. But those who like to ice fish on the Des Moines River should be more concerned, since the fast-moving currents can be more dangerous.

“We always send out a pair of rescuers, with two on standby on shore,  and the rest will help pull on the rope and are ready with blankets, cots and backboards,” Damm said.

If the firefighters have 10 people on the ground, two on standby and two rescuing the victim, “that’s all the hands we should need,” he said.

Hypothermia happens quickly, even in the warmer weather Ottumwa has enjoyed lately, he said.

“Even if the water temperature is 90 degrees, that’s still below your body’s temperature of 98.6 degrees,” he said.

And in the water on Wednesday, even though it was a warm winter day outside, a victim who is only in regular clothes would have succumbed to hypothermia quickly.

“Days like this are deceitful,” Short said.

The firefighters go through the ice rescue training fairly slowly, making sure they understand every step of the process.

“But on the actual scene everything seems to move 10 times faster,” Short said.

And during a house fire, the firefighters are able to communicate with radios.

“But here it’s just hand signals,” Damm said, since sometimes the victim is far from shore and yelling out instructions could be misconstrued.

A firefighter who is rescuing a victim will tap his own head to signal the firefighters on shore to begin pulling the rope.

While anyone who falls through the ice will likely panic, Short said it’s important to try to stay as calm as possible.

“The more energy you expel, the faster you’ll tire out,” he said.

And Damm said the victim should try as hard as possible to not go under the ice, because any current could push you under and down the river and you will be unable to find the hole where you fell through.

“Let someone know where you’re at, be with someone, use a cane or stick to pound on the ice and wear a life jacket,” he said.