Safety forces train for icy rescue

WARREN – Packard Park was all but deserted on a chilly Thursday morning except for a few Warren firefighters taking a dip in the frigid pond.

Decked out in bright orange and red wetsuits, the men went through their annual cold water rescue training.

“We’re surrounded by a lot of bodies of water, so we do have rescues,” Lt. Mark Thigpen said.

All of the department’s line-staff went through several drills after cutting a hole through the 6-inch thick ice.

After donning one of the department’s six $800 wetsuits, a set of four firefighters headed out on the ice. One of the sets included Todd Garland and Lt. Mark Thigpen.

The two crawled into the water and “burped” their suits. This practice of slightly unzipping the neck opening on the suit releases any air from inside so the firefighters don’t bob up and down or even flip over.

Lt. Paul Lamosek, who stood on shore holding a rope to pull the men out if necessary, equated burping a suit to feeling like he was enclosed in Saran wrap.

“If you don’t have a suit on, you start losing dexterity and you go into hypothermia,” Thigpen had said.

Next, using a set of small orange ice picks, Thigpen grabbed hold of the ice and hoisted himself out of the water, quickly rolling to the side of the ice. Rolling prevents the ice from breaking under the direct pressure that would be applied if the firefighters stood up immediately.

The next exercise would simulate a cold water rescue. Lamosek said there are several techniques, an older one using a latter to reach the victim and a newer practice involving the wetsuits.

Jabbing the ice with one of his picks and taking hold around Garland, Thigpen signaled to Lamosek and the others on shore to pull the rope attached to his suit with a carabiner. Out the two men went.

Kneeling on the ice, Thigpen gave Garland a reassuring pat on the shoulder and smiled as he shook off his gloved hands.

The day’s training was enjoyable, especially since the men were kept warm in the suits, Capt. Jeff Younkins, who helped lead the exercises, said. But he noted the importance.

Rivers can be particularly deceiving since the ice may seem thick, but the moving water under it creates weak points. Victims who fall through don’t have the luxury of a wetsuit.

“We find them holding onto the the edge of the ice for dear life, for someone to help them,” he said.

Younkins and Lamosek recalled a rescue that the men performed a few years back when a young girl fell through the ice while walking across a low-head dam. Lamosek said it had only taken them 12 minutes total to respond and have the girl out of the water and in a warm ambulance headed to the hospital.

It is times like those that their training is proven by test.