When it comes to firefighters' ice rescue, practice makes perfect

Firefighters from area fire departments Patrick Fitzgerald, left, and Nate Howard, right, pull Jeremy Caswell, center, out of the frigid water as they practice ice rescue techniques on Long Pond last Monday.

North Stonington - The night is cold. Rain, snow and sleet are falling.

Twenty yards from the shore of Long Pond, a man is in the chilly water after falling through the 6-inch sheet of ice. Two North Stonington firefighters, tethered to shore by line-tending firefighters and equipped with flotation devices, slide on their bellies to rescue the floundering victim.

While last week's rescue was staged, the risk is not. That's why 50 volunteer firefighters from area departments partook in the ice rescue training, a tutorial on how to react and what to do during such a rescue. While not the traditionally thought of firefighter skill, it's an important one - and a must have in New England.

"It's dangerous," said North Stonington Fire Chief Charles Steinhart V. "You want to make sure you're proficient in it and you have all the safety checks in place."

While rare compared to fire calls, ice rescue takes practice and patience, said Bob Shabunia, a 26-year veteran of the North Stonington department. He said that while most calls come when a pet wanders out onto the ice, the department's response needs to be quick because often a pet owner will venture out after their animal. Shabunia recalled an incident at Billings Lake in North Stonington more than 15 years ago when a woman went out to help her dog and fell through the ice. She ended up drowning.

"It turned into a body recovery," he said of the department's response.

Such tragedy is what fuels the hard work of training. Last Monday, new recruits donned airtight, waterproof yellow suits - think Walter White in the TV show "Breaking Bad" - to practice as the victim and the rescuer.

One went out to the cut a hole in the ice and waited in the frigid water as two rescuers - one the "primary" who approaches the victim and another as support - slid out across the ice and practiced technique. On shore, line tenders held support ropes in the event the rescuers broke through the ice.

"Keep it tight. Watch your line!" Shabunia, the department's president, yelled out to his charges over the hum of the nearby fire trucks. The wintry mix falling from the sky made the training even more like the real thing, Shabunia said.

Over and over the firefighters, some still probationary with less than 6 months of service, practiced the techniques they'd only previously learned in the classroom. The large contingent of nearly 50 firefighters were from area departments such as Mystic, Old Mystic, Noank and Groton Long Point.

"I thought it was a good learning experience, I was excited to get in the water," said Patrick Fitzgerald, an 18-year-old Wheeler High School senior. "At first it was a big challenge but then I got in, you know, and it was a lot of fun."

Older, more veteran firefighters spoke of the infrequent times they'd had to do a water rescue. Chief Steinhart said the department has little more than one such call a year. But the possibility of one somewhere across the town's large geographic area - which includes Billings Lake, Wyassup Lake, Long Pond and several smaller streams - are always there.

"When you're ice fishing and go through, the first thing is somebody should call the fire department," Fitzgerald said. "We immediately start the Old Mystic Dive Team. Around here, in the New England area, it's very important to know ice rescue because you never know when it's going to happen."

The dangers associated with such a rescue make being proficient in it all the more important, Steinhart said.

"You're on a dangerous surface and you go under the ice - hopefully that doesn't happen - but that's why we train and we do everything the safest we can because we want to come home in one piece," Steinhart said.


Joe Cassata, second from right, the North Stonington Fire Department rescue captain, briefs firefighters from regional departments participating in ice rescue training in the staging on Long Pond Jan. 28.
Joe Cassata, second from right, the North Stonington Fire Department rescue captain, briefs firefighters from regional departments participating in ice rescue training in the staging on Long Pond Jan. 28.


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