PHOTOS: Fire Dept. Ice Rescue Training
It's never too cold for a swim in Freeman Lake...right?
Capt. Marc Pare yesterday invited me to tag along as he guided members of the Chelmsford Fire Dept. through ice rescue training.
Little did I know of their not-so-secret plan to rescue their favorite Chelmsford Patch editor from the icy waters of Freeman Lake.
Whether it's Freeman, Heart Pond or even the Merrimack River - Chelmsford firefighters need to know how to handle ice and water rescue situations, and I suppose that means they need "victims" to "rescue."
At first I stood safely on the shore near the American Legion as Pare took the firefighters out to practice self-rescues, or pulling themselves up out of the water, and rescues involving one victim. Then it was my turn.
I dressed in a gigantic yellow suit that was supposed to keep me mostly dry. The firefighters zipped it up all way to underneath my nose. Slowly I made my way into the water, which I would imagine was cold but I couldn't really feel it inside the suit.
The water closed in around the suit and it felt really tight. I was instructed to turn my back to the open water and slowly kind of "back stroke" my way out to the hole.
The suit was basically like a gigantic life vest, so even though I was well above my head I knew I wouldn't drown. Once I made it to the ice I used a pair of picks - basically two nun-chuck looking objects with sharp points to stick into the ice - to pull myself up onto the ice shelf.
Then it was time to be the victim: I reluctantly slid into the hole Pare had cut in the ice.
Let's be honest, if you've seen the movie Open Water, you know why this would be terrifying. Irrational? Maybe. But Pare told me to make sure to kick my feet back and behind me once I got into the hole so they wouldn't float in front of me. If they did, he said my body could become stuck underneath the ice shelf and I wouldn't be able to get out.
Great. Here's hoping for the best. I slid in and immediately kicked my feet behind me.
Pare explained how he'd rescue someone in this situation. He tried to keep the "victim" calm and explain what he would be doing as he did it so the person being rescued would know what to expect.
Pare, who was tethered to firefighters on the shore, came at me from the side, slid into the hole along with me and hooked a rope around me. He gave me a little boost so my ribs wouldn't smash against the ice shelf and when he tapped his head, the firemen on the shore pulled me in. Pare was tethered behind me and came up and out after I did.
Then Pare said it was my turn to do the saving. He re-arranged the ropes so I was tethered to the firemen on shore.
After some quick instructions - "Do NOT lose the rope" - he got back into the hole in the ice and I followed. I quickly reached around him and hooked the rope. To my surprise, I got it on the first try! I tapped my head as the signal and out he went, with me along following after.
The training was not only a fun experience for me but also an important one. Firefighters have to know how to handle all kinds of situations that may arise like this.
When I had arrived to the rescue area that afternoon, a passer-by asked Pare if the ice was safe for skating. He said it absolutely wasn't safe, due to this mild winter. The water has kept freezing and un-freezing, he said, and in some places the ice is thick but in others it is very thin.
Pare pointed out some snowmobile tracks on the ice. Definitely not safe, he said.
All it takes is one little kid to skate out to find a puck on thin ice and fall through.
Or one dog to run off onto the ice and find that one area that might not be as thick as the rest of the lake.
Or one mild winter, like we've had, to throw people off.
Normally this time of year, the ice is about eight inches thick, firefighters told me. Not this year.
So if you want to skate or play hockey, do it at Chelmsford Forum.
It was fun pretending to be a victim and learning how these rescues are done, but hopefully they never have to be used for real. Not only are the lives of the victims at stake, but also the lives of the firefighters.
Thanks for inviting me along, Captain, and thanks to all firefighters who keep us safe every day.