BY GABE LICHT
INDEPENDENCE, MN As ice creeps onto area bodies of water, sometimes outdoor enthusiasts follow shortly behind, stepping onto ice that is, oftentimes, too thin and not safe.
Such a chain of events can end tragically, even fatally, for said enthusiasts.
Area fire departments train to prevent the worst of outcomes, with Loretto and Maple Plain fire departments teaming up for such cold-water training Monday evening on Lake Independence. They also train together each spring.
“We basically train on incident command and actual water rescue itself because, at this time of year, the ice is weak and you don’t know where it’s thick or thin,” Loretto Fire Chief Jeff Leuer said. “Hopefully, you don’t have any incidents, but we train in case there is.”
So, they donned their cold-water suits and subjected themselves to conditions that victims could face.
Doing so does not make them invincible, though, said Delano Fire Chief Bob Van Lith, whose department does cold-water training in the spring.
“It’s cold. You have to watch for guys to not get too cold,” Van Lith said. “In the same way as in a fire, you put a suit on and go into a burning structure, they protect you. Turnout gear protects you, but doesn’t protect you forever. It’s not a guarantee.”
In addition to those suits, MPFD has a Zodiac boat for cold-water rescues, while LFD has an inflatable rescue boat that can be used. Ropes and throwable flotation devices are also important tools that emergency responders use.
MPFD and LFD combine their resources for training because they would also work together in case of a cold-water emergency.
“We prepare for lakes in both our areas, knowing if we have an emergency, both departments will respond and work together,” Leuer said.
After rescuing individuals who are on or have fallen through thin ice, first responders must render care for hypothermia, with the help of medical personnel.
Even if a victim’s body temperature has dropped drastically and/or they have lost consciousness, hope is not lost.
“If your body core temperature has dropped, which it will drop in water, your body will shut down,” Van Lith said. “ . . . They’ve had success starting people up after over an hour in the water. There is no magic time.”
For that reason, Van Lith encourages individuals to wear life jackets when venturing out onto the ice.
“If you’re above and floating, it’s easy to get you out,” Van Lith said.
Leuer would prefer to not have to rescue anyone, so he encourages them to stay off the ice altogether for the time being.
“Right now, at this time of year, it’s the worst time for unsafe ice because you don’t know exactly where some currents are,” Leuer said.
For example, the ice on Lake Independence varied from 3 inches thick to nonexistent.
At least 4 inches of ice is recommended before foot traffic on frozen bodies of water commences.
“You can fall through the 3-inch stuff very easily,” Leuer said.
It’s not worth it, even for fish enthusiasts, Van Lith said, noting there are other ways for them to get their fish fix before they can get out on the ice.
“As far as I know, Coborn’s still sells fish,” he said.