Firefighters used drone technology to get a bird’s eye view of a frozen Stearns Lake and as a new vantage point from which to train for ice rescues.
North Metro Fire Rescue District ice training began Monday and will continue through Jan. 25, weather permitting.
Instead of holding training for all 114 firefighters at the same location, the district sent crews to lakes, ponds and reservoirs in their own response areas.
On Thursday, Lt. Chris Devine — a training leader at Station 66 — led the exercise at several spots, including Stearns Lake.
In the past, training consisted of a firefighter acting as the victim in the water and others on the crew performing the rescue, said Sara Farris, public information officer for North Metro Fire. Rescuers used certain techniques for swimming across open water, using one of the rescue boats or other tools.
In contrast, this year’s scenario was based on an actual situation that happened in February at a pond in Queens, New York. Devine described the scenario where a boy saved his friend who had fallen through the ice, but while doing so, fell in himself. The boy slipped under an ice shelf and died.
Farris said rescuers couldn’t initially see the boy from their vantage point, but later saw footage taken from a news helicopter where they could see the boy.
“At ground level you don’t have that perspective,” Farris said, “and you lose precious time trying to figure out where that person is.”
This year, North Metro firefighters placed a backpack in one location under the ice and a mannequin in bright clothing in another and used the drones to spot where the items had been placed.
Devine said the department has two firefighters on different shifts who are licensed to fly the department’s drones. They are working on figuring out a pilot for the third shift and where drones will be kept — with the pilot, battalion chief or somewhere else.
North Metro Fire purchased two drones within the past six months, Farris said.
On Thursday, one rescuer was able to go 400 feet on the ice before it broke off. Firefighters were outfitted in dry suits to insulate them from the freezing cold water.
The company-wide training will focus on using the drones, but firefighters who have less experience with ice rescue overall will be given additional instruction, Farris said, including five firefighters who graduated in November from the fire academy.
Owners who follow their off-leash dogs onto the ice when the dog is chasing a goose or other animal, typically make up the majority of ice rescue calls. When the dog falls through the ice, owners try to save their pet.
“Pets are our family,” Farris said. “People panic and try to go out on the ice — not thinking, just panicking.”
Since people typically weigh more than their dog, the owner risks falling through themselves. Half of the time, Farris said, the dogs get out on their own. Their bodies are better equipped to handle cold temperatures for longer periods of time and dogs typically are great swimmers who rescue themselves.
Her advice is to call 911 if a dog or person falls through ice. Bystanders should try to pinpoint where that person or pet went through to help first responders locate them and relay what that person was wearing.
“We have the same sense of emergency to rescue someone’s pet as we do with a human,” Farris said.
Devine said training starts when dispatch alerts them of a “victim” who has fallen through the ice at a body of water.
A typical response is three engines, a medic unit, battalion chief and a squad, which essentially is a truck with an inflatable boat and back-board style flotation devices. Each engine carries 300 feet of a floating rescue rope and each medic unit carries 200 feet.
For Thursday’s exercise, they did a “down and dirty” approach of one engine and one medic unit, Devine said. They also used a drone to survey the site.
Each training lasted about an hour — from the time they got on scene, to the actual rescue and then the debriefing. Part of that recap was showing everybody the drone footage.
No board or boat was used at the training, Devine said. Instead trainees in dry suits crawled to the edge of the ice and used a pike pole, a long pole with a hook, to feel beneath the water and fish out the victim.
“We pride ourselves on being very proficient in ice rescue,” Devine said. “We train every year, and we’re pretty good at it.”
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