The Contrast Between Surface Ice and Ice Diving Operations

By: Bo Tibbetts

In many parts of the country, fall weather has arrived and winter is right around the corner. Rescue professionals must gear up for both ice rescue and ice recovery operations. With respect to rescue or recovery, this is often determined by the victim’s ability to hang on until they can be safely and efficiently rescued; if not, it becomes necessary to organize a sub-surface rescue/recovery operation.

Surface Ice Rescue Operation

Let’s first decide what a surface ice rescue operation may include. A surface ice rescue operation would involve a viable victim that has fallen through weak, unstable ice and the victim is unable to self-rescue. Failure to be able to self-rescue may include extremely weak ice that continues to fracture and break with no stable platform for the victim to extricate themselves out of the frigid water. The victim may not have any self-rescue tools to get a grip on the slippery ice surface to pull themselves back up onto the ice shelf. Another reason for failure to self-rescue is lack of strength due in part to immersion in ice cold water. Their body strength is quickly depleted, leaving them helpless without the strength to pull themselves out to safety. To reach the goal of a successful surface ice rescue, the victim must be carefully extracted from the ice cold water and brought back to solid ground where EMS personnel can access the patient to administer medical care. The victim may be in some stage of hypothermia, have potential for frostbite of their extremities, or even be susceptible to cardiac arrhythmia’s which could lead to a heart attack. These operations involve a great amount of risk to both the rescuer and the victim.

Sub-surface Ice Dive Recovery Response

The sub-surface ice dive recovery response is triggered as the victim submerges under the water beneath the ice shelf. At this point, the victim is no longer able to get a grip on the ice shelf and sinks into the frigid water. This scenario requires the dive unit to devise an ice dive response. Departments try to execute a rescue within the “golden hour” to potentially effect a rescue instead of a recovery. An effective search must include both the ceiling and the bottom of the lake or pond. Several factors will determine how to get the diver and the tenders in the best position to locate the victim. All dive operations should utilize tender-directed diving. Tender-directed divers are ALWAYS attached directly to a tether line via the diver’s water operations harness which is worn beneath the BCD. We never want to attach a tender line directly to the BCD; the line must always be attached to an appropriate water operation dive harness. With the understanding that the ice shelf is extremely weak, the diver and backup divers must carefully position themselves. The backup diver is necessary to provide redundancy that will increase the safety factor and aid in an effective search. An effective tool for weight distribution and buoyancy is a sled, such as the rapid transport sled, which has been designed to evenly distribute the diver’s weight while on the fragile ice shelf and also provides a shuttle device for the operations.

Always work with a rescue in mind when you have a viable victim. Every aspect of the operation must work in concert in order for a rescue to take place. Remember that some of the time these operations result in a recovery effort, at which point time is no longer a factor and the speed of the operation should be slowed down unless it is within the “golden hour.” When responding to a surface ice rescue, the dive unit should also be dispatched in case a sub-surface rescue/recovery operation becomes necessary. One of the greatest advantages for the dive unit is the search area is defined because of the ice damage incurred with the victim’s submergence. This can greatly affect search time and may result in a rescue.

Always prepare for an ice rescue operation in advance for both the surface and sub-surface operation responses.

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