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How to buy ice-rescue equipment

From body protection to hand tools to head wear, ice rescue brings a set of equipment demands turnout gear cannot meet


Winter weather means rescue operations that involve several unique risk factors that pose threats to rescuers: hypothermia, drowning and mechanical injuries from ice, just to name a few.

Fire departments should evaluate their level of risk for engaging in ice-rescue operations as well as the anticipated frequency for such special operations.

Structural firefighting personal protective equipment has no place for operations in or around water, especially frozen over water. Ice-rescue operations — rescuing persons trapped on ice or who have fallen through ice into very cold water — require that rescue personnel have the appropriate PPE as well as the right tools for the job.

Ice-rescue suits, more commonly known as exposure suits or Gumby suits, are the necessary level of PPE for personnel during ice rescues. Exposure suits are designed and constructed to provide protection from the effects of cold water (hypothermia) as well as buoyancy for the rescue.

Many suit manufacturers also include pockets on their suits so that other ice rescue equipment such as ice claws are readily available for self-rescue.

Tool time
Water rescue rope bags are a critical ice rescue tool as part of the basic water rescue progression: reach, throw, row and go. Look for bags with a wide mouth (easier to manipulate with gloved hands), rope that floats, and rope in bright colors for easier visualization and tracing when throwing toward a victim.

A buoyant victim retrieval sling is a device that's floatable and extends the rescuer's reach to a victim by 6 feet. It is bigger and easier to grasp than a rope throw bag, and the rescuer can clip the ends together to form a high float sling that the victim can slip over their head. A retrieval sling is also very useful when approaching a victim via boat and getting them safely into the boat.

Ice picks are a necessary tool for both the victim and the rescuer alike. Providing a set of ice picks to a victim who still has the strength and dexterity to pull himself out of the hole in the ice can limit the exposure of rescuers for falling through the same ice.

Newer ice picks come in both floatable and non-floatable models with retractable tips. Look for ice picks with bright colored sheaths to aid in locating in snowy or low-light conditions.

Every rescuer on scene needs the appropriate PPE for ice rescue operations, but not everyone — boat operators, line tenders or rescuers working from the shoreline — needs an exposure suit.

Staying afloat
Flotation jackets, exposure coats and overalls are lower-cost PPE options that protect rescuers from the hypothermic effects of cold-water spray and wind, incidental contact with cold water and frigid air.

Floatation jackets and suits can provide a degree of buoyancy should a rescuer suddenly become a victim by slipping into the water from a shore position or if a rescue boat capsizes.

Personal floatation devices are a basic necessity for all personnel — those not in an exposure suit — working in and around an ice rescue operation. Make sure to use PFDs that are specifically designed and approved for rescue operations.

That means they are designed to keep the rescuer in a heads-up orientation as opposed to a face-up orientation as with recreational boating and sporting PFDs. PFDs for rescue work should have U.S. Coast Guard approval as a Type III or Type V PFD.

There is a number of supplemental equipment that can enhance the safety, efficiency and effectiveness of ice-rescue operations including helmets, cleats and lights.

Helmets specifically designed for swift water rescue are equally suited for ice rescues and provide a better level of protection from a fall on ice or a frozen shoreline than a structural firefighting helmet, which is designed primarily to protect the skull from physical trauma coming from above.

Ice cleats are extremely useful in preventing slips and falls. Cleats can also have a positive affect on a rescuer's ability to maintain their footing and operate more safely and effectively while on the ice or working on frozen or ice-encrusted shorelines.

For ice rescue operations at night probably nothing is more useful than a head-mounted LED light. Good hands-free illumination of one's work area is a critical, yet too frequently overlooked, safety practice. Look for headlamps that include a red diffuse lens option that can enhance a rescuer's night vision.

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