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Ice rescue drills: Area first responders practice lifesaving techniques

To the untrained eye, rescue efforts often look chaotic, but practice makes those efforts controlled chaos.

Local fire and rescue personnel in Sycamore, DeKalb and Genoa-Kingston have spent recent training time perfecting their ice rescue skills to be prepared should someone fall through thinning ice on area rivers, creeks and ponds.

Sycamore first responders started their day in the classroom to quickly review techniques before heading out to the shallow pond behind the Good Times Shelter in Sycamore Park for some hands-on training Thursday.

“We’ve revamped our procedures a little,” said Sycamore Fire Chief Pete Polarek. “This training should be done every year.”

Polarek said he reviewed the existing operating guidelines and using his own experience, rewrote the procedure. It was reviewed by the department in January and practiced in February.

Polarek said they do the training when the ice is a little thinner for a couple of reasons. First, it’s easier to simulate reality, and second, it’s safer for personnel being trained.

“There’s always a hazard involved, even during training, but we want to minimize the risk,” Polarek said.

DeKalb Fire Chief Eric Hicks said the only reason departments might not practice every year would be poor ice conditions. His department practiced during February as well.

“We’ve had good ice conditions for practice the past three years,” Hicks said.

Polarek said they strive to reach four objectives: familiarize personnel with procedures, give them hands-on experience, validate the value of the procedure and solicit input to improve procedures.

Polarek urged personnel to dress in their “Gumby suits” as much as possible en route to the park to help determine what limitations exist. He explained the suits are several layers thick to keep the wearer warm and dry in the water.

They approached the pond with all the gear they might need so they didn’t have to run back to the vehicles during the operation.

One “victim” went into the hole cut into the ice while his rescuers moved quickly to set up a haul line and one of them approached slowly.

They tried to help the victim by reaching out to him with a pole or a rope, but because the victim’s strength could be sapped by the cold, firefighters practiced going into the water to help him out.

None of the area departments report being called for many ice rescues, but Polarek said more often they are called to rescue a pet that’s wandered onto thinning ice.

“Generally speaking, this training isn’t designed to rescue pets, but we know how attached owners are to their pets,” Polarek said. “We would rather rescue a pet than allow the owner to get into a dangerous situation.”

A little farther north, Genoa-Kingston recently had three first responders certified to teach the rest of their mostly-volunteer department. Capts. Mike Hanson and Dick Graff, along with Lt. Matt Campbell will teach the procedures in the classroom and supervise hands-on training in a retention pond at Derbyline Estates.

“Even though we do not have many large bodies of water in our district, we do have a number of smaller retention ponds and ditches,” said Assistant Fire Chief Ryan Stoffregen. “These can sometimes be attractive to children to play on or around, so we want to make sure we have the necessary tools and skills to save someone.”

Genoa-Kingston Fire Chief Bruce Kozlowski said he was able to get a grant from Illinois Public Risk, the department’s workers’ compensation insurance provider, to pay for four “Gumby” suits at a cost of about $700 each.

“This is unique training,” Graff said. “You have to practice how you’re going to work, and I can’t wait to teach the rest of the department.”

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