An ice day for a swim
Northfield firefighter Steve Malsch awaits rescue from the icy waters of a Northfield pond during an ice rescue training with the Northfield Dive Rescue Team Saturday.
Members of the Northfield Dive Rescue Team and Northfield Fire Department hone their skills during an ice rescue training in Northfield Saturday.
Northfield Dive Rescue Team member Rachel Weisbrod, of Granby, gives reporter David Rainville a boost as the shore crew pulls him to safety during an ice rescue training in Northfield Saturday.
Photo by Jeffrey Ryan-Guy.
Northfield firefighter Steve Malsch "rescues" Northfield Dive Rescue Team member Rachel Weisbrod, with some guidance from John Otto and Amanda Dunnell, during a joint ice rescue training Saturday in Northfield.
NORTHFIELD — The Northfield Dive Rescue Team spent hours Saturday plucking several people from the icy waters of a small pond.
Once they were safe, those they’d rescued couldn’t wait to go back in, and nobody stopped them.
What would be the point? It was the annual ice rescue training, after all.
Northfield firefighters joined the dive team for a quick classroom refresher at the fire station before heading to a fire pond on Old Wendell Road, where they wasted no time cutting a large triangular hole in the ice with a chain saw.
While the ice was 18 inches thick Saturday, if it were a bona-fide ice rescue effort, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as safe a surface to stand on.
“If someone’s fallen through, we know we’re dealing with thin ice conditions,” said Northfield Fire Chief Floyd “Skip” Dunnell, former head of the dive team.
Weak spots can also form in otherwise thick ice, if there is moving water from a spring or stream channel. If it’s a warm winter or just too early or late in the season, the ice can be downright treacherous.
“Several years, by the time we get to do our training, the ice is nearly gone,” said team leader Bill Ryan.
Thin ice doesn’t stop the dive team from going out, and it doesn’t stop some less-prepared people, either.
“Ice fishers are crazy,” said Ryan. “They go out all winter, and they’ll stay out there way too late in the season.”
While the dive team’s bright yellow ice rescue suits are made to keep the wearer dry, warm and buoyant, ice fishers’ outfits aren’t much help once they go through the ice.
“A real victim, in their street clothes, will go down like an anchor,” said Ryan. “When you get to them, they’re struggling to stay afloat, and hanging onto the side of the hole.”
They can only hang on for so long.
“Hypothermia can set in within minutes, and you can lose your agility quickly,” Ryan explained.
The body starts to pull warmth from the extremities to keep the core temperature up, which makes for numb, near-useless fingers. In severe cases, muscle coordination is affected as well. Hypothermia affects the mind as well, leading to confusion and inability to speak, and many victims begin to panic when they hit the water, whether hypothermic or not.
To calm the victim, assess their mental state and find out if anyone else is imperiled, rescuers strike up a conversation as they inch their way on all fours toward the victim.
“What’s your name? Are you alone? How did this happen?” rescuers ask, while assuring the victim that help is on the way.
As they get closer, they will toss a rope just out of reach of the person being rescued.
“It’s not there for them to grab, but to give them something to focus on,” Ryan explained.
Trying it out for myself
At the urging of Ryan and others, I took the opportunity to find out for myself.
With a little help, I put on a bright yellow survival suit, a one-piece get-up that includes gloves, boots and a watertight hood. First, I was to be the rescuer, then the helpless victim.
One end of the rope is clipped to my suit, the other is held by workers on shore, where a second rescuer waits, suited up, in case I find myself in trouble. I work my way across the ice, with a loop of rope in one hand and a clip in the other. When I get close, I get on all fours, and talk to the man floating in the icy water.
I toss a rope to him, just out of reach, as instructed. It’s not for him to pull himself out, it’s for peace of mind. It gives a victim something to focus on, something that says “help is here.”
I then eased into the water with the “victim,” but before he can be saved, I have to take care of myself.
Once I’m immersed, my feet start to float, ruining my balance. Air trapped in the suit’s legs makes them too buoyant. As instructed, I “bicycle kick” to keep my feet down while I pull a face flap and maneuver my limbs to allow the air to escape.
The air purged, what felt like a big, bulky spacesuit on shore began to feel molded to my body and I felt in control.
I got behind the victim, and looped the rope around him. I noticed it was too low and worked it up just under his arms, then locked it in place with a carabineer clip. With a couple quick hand signals, shore workers took up the slack and pulled us both from the hole.
He popped out first, I came out just behind. The feeling of sliding across the ice on a rope is eerie.
Then it was my turn.
I slid back into the water and grabbed the edge of the ice, tucking my knees under to purge the rest of the air from my suit. Treading water with the sun at my back, I felt like I could stay awhile — I wasn’t the least bit cold, and stayed dry as a bone.
Dive team member Rachel Weisbrod of Granby decided to pluck me out anyway. I joked a bit with her as she made her way across the ice.
“Who are you? Are you alone?” she asked.
“I’m Dave, and the Lord is always with me,” I answered.
“I’m turning around,” she said with a laugh.
Though it was her first day of ice training, she’d worked through the drill a couple times already and quickly secures the rope around me.
In moments, I’m sliding across the ice to safety.
“I’ve been on the team for years, but I’ve never been able to make it to the ice training,” she said. “It was an unfamiliar process, but it was no trouble at all. It was really helpful to have the more experienced team members there to help talk me through it.”
We agreed that the suits were a bit awkward at first, and took some time to get used to. The learning curve was a lot steeper before the team got their new suits last year.
Ryan said the old, red, neoprene “Gumby” suits were a lot more cumbersome. Air would stay trapped, making the legs float, and the thick suits didn’t allow for much maneuverability.
I’m sure they were still better than a wet wool coat and water-filled winter boots, though.
You can reach David Rainville at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 279