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Video: Soft ice encounters – alternative approaches for fire crews

A step-by-step plan for rescue operations on thin and unreliable ice rescue, focusing on minimalist rigging and rapid deployment

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Floating platforms such as lightweight inflatable or rigid watercrafts designed for ice applications can be the best asset in a soft ice rescue scenario.


When we train for ice rescue events, we typically wait until the ice is several inches thick, cut holes in the ice with chain saws, and then commence with the “go” rescue and self-rescue sequences. However, this represents only a portion of the ice rescue scenarios we face. Further, the training usually involves a vehicle that has traveled across the ice and then broken through where it is thin. It can also occur where a previous hole was created and then froze over again but produced a weak spot in the ice.

What happens, though, when the ice has warmed up or is in the early layering stages, and is thin and unreliable? This is the most difficult ice to work on.

If we attempt go rescues where we travel across the ice, we may spread out our weight by belly-crawling or three-point sliding, but we continuously punch through the ice and essentially end up trying to fracture our way through the ice to the victim. This is painful, difficult and inefficient.

So, what are the alternatives?

Floating platforms such as lightweight inflatable or rigid watercrafts designed for ice applications can be our best asset with this type of ice rescue scenario. They do a great job of distributing weight. We can also use ropes to connect the crafts and rely on shore-based crews to pull us into position to affect the rescue. The are many ways to set up and perform the operation.

Today, I am going to share an approach that relies on minimalist rigging and rapid deployment – and walk you through the entire sequence. The scenario involves a retention-size pond or a narrow section of static water. Moving water and larger bodies of water require some other variables with anchoring and system design.

First-due operations

Initial-arriving companies should be equipped with throw bags and reaching devices. They should don proper PPE, which would include a PFD, if available, and conduct a visual and verbal assessment of the victim by delivering self-rescue coaching points. If the victim responds and is active and attentive in their attempts to comply with directions, then they are a good candidate for throwing and reaching, as they should have the strength to hold onto the implement. If they are lethargic and noncompliant with directions, don’t waste your time with reaching and throwing. Immediately transition into constructing a hasty track-line for the rescue company with the lightweight watercraft.

Step by step

There are several steps to complete this operation:

Step 1: Keep your eye on the victim and work your way around the bank until you identify an appropriate anchor on the far side of the water body in your sight line. Then turn around and identify a near side anchor. If you drew a straight line from anchor to anchor across the water, the line should be within a boat length of the victim ideally.

Step 2: Create connections on both anchors. These anchors are not going to support a vertical load like they would in rope rescue, so don’t overthink this. They do not have to be “bombproof” anchors for verticality. Connectors can be created with webbing slings or bailout rope in your gear. They can also be created by tying anchors with throwline. One anchor point can be tied in with the following options:

  • Bowline finished with a Yosemite on a bight
  • Clove hitch
  • Figure 8 follow-through
  • High-strength tie-off or tensionless wrap

Before we can develop the opposite anchor, we need to make the stretch of the rope(s) that will bring the two anchors together.

Step 3: Once your initial anchor is developed, connect or use the remaining segment of throwline and send it to the other anchor. If this can be accomplished by simply throwing it to the far side, great. However, that would be a really small body of water. In most circumstances, a rescuer has to run the perimeter of the body of water with a series of throw bags and simply link them together every time they run out of throwline. Carabiners make these connections fast and easy, but if they aren’t available, square knots can be used to connect all of the throw bags until you have enough length to contact the opposing anchor. Once you’re there, make sure you have approximately 20 feet or more of additional line beyond the opposing anchor.

Step 4: Establish the opposing anchor by creating a basket or sling with webbing or a short section of line/rope with two figure eight on bights thus mimicking an anchor strap. We are now going to tie a “Voodoo Hitch” (see video below). A voodoo hitch is a fast and easy option to create and self-securing tensioning system on your lines.

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A voodoo hitch is a fast and easy option to create and self-securing tensioning system on your lines.

Photo/Dalan Zartman

  • Place a carabiner into the basket or sling you have created on the anchor.
  • Pass the throwline through the carabiner and redirect the rope back toward the victim.
  • Pull the slack out of the rope manually by pulling through the carabiner as if it was a pulley.
  • Evaluate the remaining length of rope you have and tie an “In Line Figure 8” knot at the distance you need to develop a tensioning system. This is not an absolute distance. The more rope you have in the system, the more slack you will have and the more stretch when you tension. This will require a longer tensioning zone of potentially 15 to 20 feet. If this a shorter stretch, you may only need 6 to 10 feet. You may also be limited by the amount of excess rope you have. Evaluate all of those variables quickly and then to the in line 8. The bight of the 8 should be oriented back toward the opposing anchor we are working on.
  • Pull a small section of rope (between the in line 8 and the opposing anchor) directly through the bight of the 8. You only need a few inches of bight for this.
  • Pick up the tail of the rope that you originally pulled through the anchor carabiner and pull tension now toward the in-line 8. Once that rope is taught and touching the in-line 8, tie a figure 8 on a bight onto the tail and connect it to the bight fed through the in-line 8. This forms a closed loop piggybacked onto the main line.
  • Grab the slack section of tail now and tension the main line by pulling back toward the opposing anchor we have been working on. To gain maximum tension, use a hand shuttling technique where one hand pulls on the designated line and the other hand feed the return section of rope into the in line 8 bight. The friction within the hitch self assumes. To produce slack on the system, simply reverse your hand operation and feed the tensioning line while you pull on the previously fed line.
  • Once the line is as tight as one rescuer can get it, you have established a crude track line across the waterbody in close proximity to the victim.

Rescue company on scene

Ideally, the rescue company is on scene now. They should be able to deploy their ice rescue craft in less than two minutes.

The shore-based group will now reallocate themselves to a tending group for the craft and the rescuers.

Attach a tend line to the craft so that the rescuer can be pulled back to shore quickly when they are ready. The rescuers can now line up their craft with the track line and simply pull themselves into rescue position. Handled ascenders may be used to help assist with the movement. If rescuers do not have a craft that is light enough and maneuverable enough to be “rescuer advanced” across the ice, consider converting to a three-point tether in which three shore-based crews are established as points on a triangle and they can work from the shore to maneuver the craft into rescue position.

All-in rescue

The beauty of this technique is the ability to establish support systems in a very timely fashion by initial-arriving companies with limited resources. Hopefully, this results in a much faster and efficient deployment of the rescuers when they get on scene. Keep in mind, shore-based personnel, one at a minimum, should maintain direct visual and verbal contact and shore-based rescue capabilities throughout this event. At my department, we train all of our apparatus personnel to establish this sequence, and it can be done in minutes even with a two-person EMS crew.

Make sure you watch the video for all of the technical tips, and let me know how it works out for you and your organization. Stay safe, train hard, and keep your communities off of unreliable ice!

Dalan Zartman is a 20-year career veteran of the fire service and president and founder of Rescue Methods, LLC. He is assigned to a heavy rescue and is an active leader as a member of both local and national tech rescue response teams. Zartman has delivered fire and technical rescue training courses and services around the globe for more than 15 years. He is also an international leader in fire-based research, testing, training and consulting related to energy storage, and serves as the COO at the Energy Security Agency. Zartman serves as regional training program director and advisory board member for the Bowling Green State University State Fire School. He is a certified rescue instructor, technical rescue specialist, public safety diver, fire instructor II, firefighter II, and EMTP.