APOLLO, Pa. — When a person falls through ice into frigid water, a countdown on their life begins.

For those who would rescue them, preparation is vital.

That’s why, officials said, training sessions like one held on a recent Saturday at Northmoreland Park in Allegheny Township are so important.

“Muscle memory is key,” said Dave Abt, president of the Maryland-based International Association of Water Rescue Professionals. “You don’t have time to think. You have to react.”

Abt came to observe the performance of some 100 to 125 swift water rescue technicians who gathered at the park’s frozen lake.

Mostly volunteers, they came from agencies and departments across western Pennsylvania that make up the Pennsylvania Region 13 task force, named for the number of counties that are members, plus the city of Pittsburgh.

Conditions were said to be perfect for the annual training session.

The ice was about a foot thick, covered with a layer of snow, but the air temperature was warming into the 40s.

Instead of cold, getting too warm in gear designed to protect a person from freezing water was a concern.

Mixed crews all work as a team

Working across seven stations practicing different rescue methods, the crews were mixed up so they’d become accustomed to working together, said Greg Leathers, chairman of Region 13 and the Greene County emergency management director.

“Everybody should be doing everything the same way,” said Blawnox fire Chief George McBriar, chief of the Allegheny County swift water flood response team.

In a rescue situation, McBriar said, the most important tool first-responders have are their fellow safety personnel on shore.

“You have to depend on the people that are taking care of you,” he said.

This was the first time that the Northmoreland lake has been used for the training. It had previously been done at Somerset Lake in Somerset County, but it has been drained.

Chain saws were used to cut two openings in the ice, which were closed when the training was done with the same ice that was cut away.

George McFarland, a water rescue and dive team captain with the city of Greensburg, said there are a lot of things to watch out for in an ice rescue situation.

Cold water saps away a person’s strength.

“You only have a couple minutes when you’re in there,” he said.

He recalled some past calls he’s been on: a canoeist rescued after capsizing at Loyalhanna Dam, and survived; a call for kids on bicycles falling through ice on Barnes Lake in Irwin, but the kids had gotten out on their own.

“We were looking for kids,” McFarland said. “The only thing we found were bikes.”

Far more dangerous

Water rescues are much more dangerous than any others, Abt said.

“It’s very infrequent and very high risk,” he said.

Ice rescues can make up just 1 percent of a busy department’s calls in a year, he said. The risk is from hypothermia.

“With a structure fire, you know what you’re walking into,” he said. “In the water rescue business, it changes every few seconds.”

About 4 inches of ice can be safe to be on, said Dan Felack, deputy chief of the Armstrong County Water Rescue Task Force. Still, he said people going onto ice should wear life jackets, which will keep them above water should they go in.

Don’t ever test river ice

But when it comes to the rivers, McBriar said they’re never safe. The water is moving, and the ice can be compromised by chemicals and warm discharges, such as sewage.

“Stay off the river,” he said.

Scott Grahn, an instructor with the Fish and Boat Commission, manages the swift water team in Somerset County. He was loudly cheering trainees on to keep them motivated.

“They’re the ones that make the difference,” he said. “It’s the folks that are here putting their lives on the line and they’re doing it safely. That’s what we’re here to do: to walk away from this.”

The day’s training went well, he said.

“We’re all a team, no matter what county,” he said. “When you have an incident where you have a fisherman fall through the ice, it’s so important that you put that message out for trained people coming. We have that knowledge.”

Training garners high praise

Abt liked what he saw.

“These guys have their stuff down and better than the vast majority of teams in the world,” he said, adding that his praise didn’t come frivolously. “In this line of work, we tend to be pretty ruthless in evaluating.”

As the crews trained, a man walked across the lake with his dog, and he was ice fishing just a short distance away. He didn’t appear to have on any safety equipment.

“Somebody’s always got an eye on him,” Abt said. “We’re just waiting in case we have to go to work.”



Information from: Tribune-Review, http://triblive.com

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BRIAN C. RITTMEYER, Valley News Dispatch
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