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Friday, Jan. 10, 2014

Olathe firefighters are ready if someone falls through ice

Special to The Star

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Even though battles against flame and smoke are far more common, the emergency responders of the Olathe Fire Department are ready to save people from ice, too.

That’s why they were out on and below the crust of ice that had formed on top of a pond near the Great Mall of the Great Plains last weekend.

Even though the air temperature was above freezing, the ice on the pond was about five inches thick — so thick that the firefighters had to use a chainsaw to cut holes so they could get in and train.

“Last year we didn’t get a real good, full thickness of ice, which presents other problems,” said Capt. Bill Schneider, who was leading the training exercise on Jan. 4. “People can think it’s thick and break through.”

Last winter, the ice wasn’t thick enough to train on ice rescues, Schneider said. This year, the conditions were ideal. So members of the Fire Department donned yellow “Ice Commander Ice Rescue” suits made by Mustang Survival, either to simulate a victim who had fallen through the ice into the water below, or to practice rescuing him.

Schneider said the ice suits are always on all fire trucks.

“You can only survive in that water a couple of minutes,” Schneider said, “so it’s important that we get that call quickly.”

The practice routine went like this: One of Schneider’s men wearing an ice suit walked out to a hole carved in the ice about 100 feet from shore and dropped in. Then another yellow-suited firefighter carrying a nylon rope walked out to the hole, dropped in behind the simulated victim and tied the line around him. The rescuer then gave a hand signal to his fellows on shore, who hauled the victim up and out.

If the ice had been thinner, the rescuers would have crawled on their bellies to spread out their weight and prevent them from falling through.

Schneider explained that, like a swimming-pool lifeguard, rescuers approach victims from behind so the victim doesn’t grab them and pull them under. That’s if the victim is still conscious.

“Many times, the victim won’t wave,” Schneider said. “Hypothermia sets in quickly, and their mental capacity is diminished.”

It’s important for the Fire Department to practice ice rescues because, thankfully, actual incidents to keep them well practiced are rare. County-wide, emergency crews have made five ice rescues since 2009 — a child, three dogs and a vehicle.

“Ice rescue is a low frequency, high-hazard type of incident,” the department’s public information officer, Mike Hall, said in an email. “We have had one true ice rescue (in Olathe) since 2009. It was a family dog named Jinx who had fallen through the ice about 100 feet from shore. We rescued Jinx and returned him to his family that was waiting on the shore.

“Every year, we emphasize how important it is to stay off of the ice, since we have more than 280 acres of public lakes, 65 acres of private lakes and numerous acres of retention ponds and creeks.

“Cold-water immersion creates a specific condition known as immersion hypothermia. It develops much more quickly than standard hypothermia because water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air, according to the Centers for Disease Control.”

The department’s ice suits, however, provide more than adequate protection from the icy waters, according to the men who used them in the training last weekend.

“You float like a top,” said Firefighter Mike Robbins, who had just emerged from the pond. “It’s like being in a swimming pool; it’s not cold at all.

“The last couple of winters have been pretty mild, so it’s nice when we can get out there and practice our techniques. It’s important to keep our skills up so we can go home.”

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