CHARLESTON, W.V. — When the temperature drops, firefighters and emergency rescue crews have more to worry about than icy slick roads and frozen-over fire hydrants.
At least a few times each year, when it’s so cold Kanawha (W.V.) County’s rivers and streams get glazed over with ice, some people get fooled into thinking the bodies of water are frozen solid.
Particularly on the Elk River, people often try to walk across or play on the icy surface.
Disaster almost always follows.
This week, even as the weather warmed, members of the Charleston Fire Department’s Water Rescue Team tried to get ready for the inevitable.
They headed to the South Charleston Memorial Ice Arena to brush up on how best to save somebody who’s plunged into icy water.
Such a scenario became reality a few weeks ago when a tractor-trailer went off an interstate bridge straight into the Kanawha River. With temperatures in the 30-degree range that day, rescuers faced challenges trying to get a driver and his passenger out of the frigid water.
On Tuesday, Charleston Fire Capt. Bob Sharp, a member of the rescue team for about 20 years, explained some tricks of the trade to the veterans and the four newcomers of the water rescue team.
Outside it was an unusually warm winter day, about 70 degrees. But the team was gathered in the arena, wearing thick jackets and gloves, preparing to get down and dirty on the frozen floor.
As important as what they know headed into the cold ice and water might be what they’re wearing.
The rescue crew recently bought two $400 suits that help fight the cold temperatures.
“Ice Commanders have really sped up our efforts for rescue calls,” Sharp said.
The suits take less time to put on than a scuba or dry suit, and the Ice Commanders already have flotation devices inside them. For that reason, they can’t be used for underwater dive rescues, but they’re essential for top-of-the-water and above-ice work, Sharp said.
While ice at the arena is far different than what rescuers face in real-life crises, the training is helpful making rescuers more comfortable on the ice.
Tuesday, firefighters, two at a time, donned yellow Ice Commander suits while Rodney Winter, assistant fire chief, went out onto the ice rink and lay inside a marked area to simulate a victim who had fallen through.
At the start of the drills, rope bags were slung across the ice to establish a support system to grip, which would be held on both sides of the water’s edge in a real situation, and then the firefighters got down on their stomachs and shoved out to rescue the pretend victim.
Everything from ladders and jackets to spare tires and softballs can be used at first to help speed up a water or ice rescue, Sharp said. The caps for fire hoses can even be used — they trap air inside and can serve as another means of floatation.
Winter showed rescuers some makeshift techniques. He fashioned a softball into a makeshift slingshot that could be used to send a rope across a body of water.
“We’re always looking for new ideas,” Sharp said. “How can we get better?”
Firefighter Shawne Monk, one of the newest members, hasn’t been part of a real-life rescue in his eight months on the team.
He said the practice at the ice rink makes him feel more confident if an emergency does require his help.
“It prepares you in a lot of different ways before an actual rescue occurs, like getting out there on a slick surface,” Monk said.
Monk, 30, joined the water rescue team because he’s always loved the water. He is also a certified scuba diver and volunteers for underwater search and rescue.
Sharp, who’s also a scuba instructor, said there are two things to remember when rescuing someone from ice or water.
“The victim has a very hard time self rescuing, and never lose contact,” he said.
“They’re more helpless in the cold water. People lose feeling and mobility in their fingertips.”
The next hands-on training the department has scheduled is in April at Summersville Lake.
The water rescue crew often goes there to test out their underwater skills, since the Kanawha River has very limited visibility beneath the surface, Sharp said.Contact writer Zack Pettit at [email protected]