Goldens Bridge Fire Department

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GBFD Ice Rescue Drill 2021
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By Lieutenant Raymond Baker Jr.
February 23, 2021

It was easy to think the worst if you were recently driving by the pond on the corner of Route 138 and Fairmount Road, where the flashing lights of Goldens Bridge Fire Department apparatus lighted the night sky and firefighters, dressed in severe weather survival suits, glided across the ice on their stomachs toward someone about 30 feet from the shoreline. But the drama unfolding was simulated, rather than real-life, because the “victim” submersed in the frigid waters was a firefighter taking part in the department’s ice-rescue training exercises.

With parts of the Muscoot Reservoir system and a number of skating ponds located in the community, Al Melillo, Goldens Bridge’s fire chief, said the drills were designed to sharpen the skills of firefighters in the event of a real ice emergency. The department averages close to two water-related rescues per year that involve ice fishing, boating, and other recreational water activities gone awry.

The training drill on Tuesday, Feb. 23, began with Goldens Bridge firefighters using a chainsaw to cut a hole through the pond’s six-inch thick ice. The victim, who also wore a protective survival suit, was dropped into the water as if they had fallen in, triggering a full-blown emergency response as if it was the real thing. A two-member team of firefighters, with a special ice-gliding sled in tow, dragged themselves on their stomachs across the ice, which Melillo said is a common technique because it distributes their weight evenly to minimize disturbing the integrity of the ice and falling through themselves.

Ropes were individually attached to both rescuers as well as the sled. From the shoreline, a two-member crew each was assigned to the three ropes. After firefighters placed the arms of the distressed person through a harness on the sled, which hoists the victim out of the water and onto the safety device, a crew from the shoreline—using 250-foot rope reels—safely pulled the sled onto solid ground, according to Melillo.

One of the rescuers stayed with the victim by holding onto the sled, while the other firefighter followed closely behind, the fire chief explained, noting that depending on the conditions of the ice, firefighters might return to the shore on their stomachs, knees or walk upright. Throughout the process, a second two-firefighter rescue crew was on standby in case the first crew faced adversity during the rescue, he said. Firefighters rotated roles as they repeated the rescue exercise.

“The emergencies are simulated, but the goal during these training drills is to create realistic scenarios in conditions that firefighters would find themselves when responding to a real-life ice emergency,” Melillo said. “Just as we train for structure and vehicle fires, we train for ice emergencies with gear and equipment and various rescue techniques to be prepared for all eventualities.”

At the conclusion of the training drills, the chunk of ice was placed back over the hole that had been cut so it could re-freeze. An orange safety cone also marked the spot.

Firefighters also trained with the use of other life-saving devices, according to the fire chief, which included a pipe pole—a common first step if the distressed person is close enough and is capable of reaching out and grasping the device so that firefighters can pull them safely to the shore. In addition, they trained with throw-bags—a canvas bag containing approximately 90 feet of buoyant rope that unravels when tossed to the victim—as well as flotation rings and other life-saving devices.

“Time is not on your side, especially in icy water,” Melillo said. “Hypothermia sets in quickly. Every second counts, which oftentimes means going right to heavy duty rescue—which is sending firefighters onto the ice and making the rescue,” said Melillo, who added that the training sessions take place in the most challenging conditions—which usually means thin ice.

The fire chief noted that since ponds ice over quickly because the water is still, it doesn’t always mean they are safe for skating or other activities. He urged those who use local waters for recreational purposes, whether in summer or winter, to operate safely, and obey all warning and safety signs.

“There’s a reason posted signs say the ice is not safe for skating, ice fishing, or walking across. But even when it is safe, ice-related activities should never be done alone,” Melillo said. “There should always be at least two people so that one can call 9-1-1 if the other gets into trouble. Be familiar with your surroundings. If you’re on the reservoir, tell the 9-1-1 dispatcher where you drove in. Seconds can mean the difference between life and death when emergency responders are on the way to help you.”

Golden’s Bridge firefighters are planning a double rescue in a more expansive body of water. If the ice is too thin, firefighters will perform cold-water rescue training.

Over the years, the GBFD has made a number of water rescues during winter months, including a group of people who were stuck on a frozen piece of ice that broke away and drifted toward deeper unfrozen water. They also recovered the bodies of two fishermen who died after their boat capsized in frigid waters of the Muscoot Reservoir on New Year’s Day of 2019.

The article was written by the Goldens Bridge Fire District PIO Steve Mangione. Photos taken by GBFD Captain Tyler Dente.

Units: GBFD-Car 2141, Car 2142, Car 2143, Engine 138, Engine 140, Rescue 25

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