Columbia firefighters practice ice rescues

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 | 5:51 p.m. CST; updated 8:47 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Columbia firefighters Lester Shewmake, left, and Jim Pasley, right are pulled out of the water by fellow firefighters during an ice rescue training exercise outside of Bass Pro Shops on Wednesday afternoon. The firefighters took turns acting as both the victim and the rescuer during the exercise.

COLUMBIA — Thermal suits and sunny weather made for a pleasant day of dipping into the lake next to Bass Pro Shops for Columbia firefighters.

For the first time in a few years, conditions allowed the Columbia Fire Department to hold an ice rescue training session, Capt. Eric Hartman said.


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Firefighters wearing yellow thermal suits took turns rescuing one another from a hole they made in the ice-covered lake.

The Fire Department gets an average of ten ice water rescue calls each winter, the majority of them animal related, Hartman said.

"When people let their pets off of their leashes, and they end up falling in the ice, we take it seriously," he said. "If we don't go out, pretty soon we're going to have a person in the water trying to rescue the animal."

The firefighters gathered in the Bass Pro Shops parking lot to discuss techniques. Klifton Bullard gave the group of roughly 20 firefighters tips for successful rescues.

"The victim has twenty minutes until they die from hypothermia," he said. "So you have a very short amount of time to act."

He also told the group that when dealing with a hypothermia victim, they must speak loudly and slowly because the victim's senses are impaired.

The group then put on their suits, which act as a barrier against water and cold, and gathered on the shore to prepare for the simulation.

"It's a lot like wearing bubble wrap," said Lt. William Stafford. "Although you can feel the cold, it's still fairly warm."

One firefighter crawled onto the frozen lake and into the hole to act as the victim. Another followed, hooked on to a strong rope held by other firefighters on the shore. He then secured the rope around the victim. When the rescuer was ready, he tapped his head to signal the firefighters on the shore. They then pulled the two out of the water.

"The training is very realistic," Stafford said. "But in an actual emergency, we're farther from the bank, and it takes a lot longer."

The Fire Department uses the same method to rescue animals.

Training is important to the firefighters because it makes actual rescues operate smoothly.

"When a life is really at stake, you can fall back on your training," firefighter Jeffrey Heidenreich said. "It becomes a second nature so you don't have to think as much."

The Fire Department urges people to keep their pets on leashes and also to wait for the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department to test the ice for safety. 

Although Columbia firefighters haven't had to perform an ice rescue this season, they anticipate accidents because of warmer temperatures ahead.

"When it starts to warm up, people want to get out there and enjoy the ice," Hartman said. "Unfortunately, the previous cold temperatures give them a false sense of security because in reality, the ice is weakened."

Two training sessions will be held from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m Wednesday through Friday. Every Columbia firefighter will participate in one training session.

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