On thin ice: Eagle River Fire performs annual ice rescue refresher training | VailDaily.com

On thin ice: Eagle River Fire performs annual ice rescue refresher training

Firefighters complete this winter's ice rescue refresher training with simulated rescues at Freedom Park in Edwards.
Courtesy of Eagle River Fire Protection District

While a beautiful element of the valley’s winterscapes, frozen bodies of water often present a slew of hazards. Rescuers within the Eagle River Fire Protection District prepare to encounter these dangers themselves in rescue scenarios during the agency’s annual ice rescue refresher training. 

Eagle River Fire rescuers took to the frigid waters at the off-leash dog area pond at Freedom Park in Edwards to simulate rescues right where they may be most necessary. 

Jason Clark, Eagle River Fire Protection District special operations division chief, said one of the most common situations that provokes the need for an ice rescue is when pets venture onto the ice in the first place. 

Safety tips
  • Keep pets on a leash and avoid throwing toys for pets to retrieve near frozen bodies of water
  • Inform children of the dangers of playing on and near frozen bodies of water
  • Reach-Throw-Go: If someone falls through ice, try to reach the victim from the shore or attempt to throw a floatation device. If the person cannot be rescued quickly, go or call for help.
  • Wear a life jacket or float coat when on or near ice
  • Use the buddy system when on or near ice
  • Wait to enjoy alcoholic beverages to mitigate risk of hypothermia

“Sometimes, someone’s walking their dog and their pet gets away and runs out and will fall through the ice,” Clark said. “That can certainly add to things when the pet owner decides they want to go out and rescue their pet. It’s an emotional reaction is what it comes down to.”

However, this emotional reaction could just leave both the pet and the pet owner in even more danger.

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Bryan Nagle, an engineer with the Eagle River Fire Protection District is the agency’s ice rescue subject matter educator. He explained that another common ice rescue scenario begins with curious children playing near frozen bodies of water. 

“One of our members lives in EagleVail and sometimes, for their workout, they’ll go for a cross-country ski near the Eagle River, and actually witnessed (something) just the other day — some kids playing on the ice on the Eagle River trying to actually break the ice that they were standing on,” Nagle said. 

Nagle said that in a situation where a person falls through the ice on a river, things may be much more dangerous than falling through ic e on a still body of water. He explained that the ice shelf, which tends to remain stagnant over a river, can quickly turn into a hazard that a person can be knocked into or be pushed under by the river’s current. 

Eagle River Fire Protection District is prepared to respond in situations like these, Clark said, because it has both the tools and the training to help out in ice rescue situations. 

In 2007, when Nagle started with Eagle River Fire, he said the ice rescue curriculum the agency followed was under Dive Rescue International. The agency has since transitioned to using Rescue Three International, a California-based organization with curriculums for swift water rescue, rope rescue and ice rescue. 

The annual refresher training is a two-day course that certifies rescuers in Rescue Three International protocol. Nagle said about four hours of the course is designated for lectures and 20 hours are designated for in-the-field training at Freedom Park. 

For their annual ice rescue training refresher, Eagle River Fire District members completed four hours of lecture training and 20 hours of field training simulating ice rescues.
Courtesy of Eagle River Fire Protection District

One aspect of the training prepares rescuers for the physiological challenges that come with entering water — particularly at such low temperatures.

“The mammalian dive reflex is when water either hits your face or hits kind of the back of your throat and your larynx area at the same time as you’re taking a breath in,” Nagle said. “It can actually cause a laryngeal spasm and that’s your body trying to protect your lungs to make sure that no water gets into your lungs.”

Nagle said that when rescuers enter an unstable environment to help save someone, they are also putting their physical safety in danger. So, in order to ensure rescuers can keep themselves safe and effectively rescue the victim, Nagle said the annual training refresher covers what to do when a responder must first self-rescue. 

Despite the dangers of conducting the rescue, Nagle said responders are there to help. He explained that those who join the fire service want to help others. 

“We’re going to risk a lot to save a lot,” he said. 

Rehearsing rescues also helps ensure first responders at Eagle River Fire are able to work together seamlessly when an emergency situation arises.

When responders arrive at the scene, Nagle said they usually will assess the situation to determine the strategy that the team will employ to conduct the rescue. 

Nagle said Eagle River Fire has different levels of responders: technical and operational. 

“So those two (technical) individuals are immediately going down to assess what the condition is of the victim while the other two (operational) members of the engine are pulling gear — our EMS bags, backboards, rope gear potentially, so they’re kind of bringing auxiliary equipment down,” Nagle said. 

Because first responders like those at Eagle River Fire have the tools and training to navigate the unpredictable environment and help a victim, Nagle said when a person or pet falls through the ice, 911 should be called immediately. 

“(There are) sudden impacts of sudden immersion syndrome and it affects everybody differently based on age, health, previous medical conditions,” Nagle said. “Depending on who falls in the water, they could have a medical emergency different than somebody else. We never know when that’s going to happen … We still want 911 being called and making sure that they’re OK. They can totally deny care, but we just want to make sure everything’s safe.”

Letting first responders help save a pet that falls through the ice can ensure the pet owner isn’t falling through as well when trying to retrieve their animal. 

A throw bag with a floating rope is pictured at Freedom Park in Edwards. Experts recommend owners to not attempt to rescue pets themselves as they could likely fall through the ice. However, should a person need assistance, the rope can be tossed from on shore to help.
Courtesy of Eagle River Fire Protection District

However, should it be necessary, there is a throw bag at Freedom Park with a floating rope and safety signage that can be tossed from the pond’s shore to a person in need. 

To avoid falling through the ice altogether, one can remain aware of the dangers of frozen bodies of water. Keeping pets on-leash and avoiding throwing toys onto the ice for them to retrieve are easy ways people can keep their animals off the ice. 

Additionally, Eagle River Fire recommends parents remind their children of the hazards of playing on frozen bodies of water. 

“Inform their kids, you know, ‘Don’t go out on the ice, it looks like fun, but if you fall in, it’s a very dangerous environment,” Nagle said. 

If recreating on or near breakable ice, Nagle referenced a Colorado Parks and Wildlife flyer with important safety tips. One such tip is to use the buddy system if going out in hazardous areas so that if anything does happen, there is someone who can throw a rope and call for help. 

“Wait to enjoy alcoholic beverages until afterward, (because) it will increase the likelihood of hypothermia,” Nagle said. “That’s due to dehydration.”

While ice can be dangerous, it can also be enjoyed safely in regulated environments. For example, ice skating at designated outdoor rinks is a safe way to enjoy the ice in the winter.  

“I’m getting ready to work with the town of Avon to do an ice awareness training as they might be opening up Nottingham to do ice skating again,” Nagle said. 

With proper management and testing of the ice, partnered with increased awareness of potential dangers, risks can be minimized and people can enjoy the frozen bodies of water safely and responsibly.  

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