Ice rescue training in Pa. key as warmer weather moves in

Katherine Ranzenberger

Ice cracked under Todd Stahl’s feet. It was 45 degrees out, and the ice was only 3 inches thick.

Skip Urban from Wissahickon Fire Department in Montgomery County pulls himself from the water using a spike-tipped pole as rescue personnel from six different departments take part in ice rescue training in Hellam Township, Sunday Feb. 21, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

He slowly sank down into the pond he had been standing on.

Thankfully, Stahl knew what he was doing. He’s been training firefighters to get out of this exact situation for nearly 20 years.

“This winter we’ve seen an increase in water rescues because we haven’t had that deep freeze like we had the last two winters,” Stahl said. “This is the third freeze we’ve had for this pond.”

Stahl, president of WhiteCap Water Rescue Training, spent Sunday morning training firefighters from Montgomery and Chester counties in ice rescue and emergency response rescues. He’s worked with WhiteCap since 2006, training more than 8,000 people in water rescue techniques.

“This training is all about planning, coordination and response,” he said. “It’s a specialty. The conditions we have today are the conditions they’d work in.”

Instructor Alex Myers of Craley, right, watches closely as "victim" Jermey Houser, from West Bradford, is pulled from the water during ice rescue training in Hellam Township, Sunday Feb. 21, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

Training: The group of 18 men gathered at a pond on Lincoln Highway East in Hellam Township to complete the last five hours of their 16-hour training. They spent eight hours in the classroom as well as three hours training in a pool before going out to the frozen pond.

Ranging in age from 20 to 55 years old, the men had to work on techniques for getting themselves out of the freezing water before they could save others from the cold.

“The hardest way is if you don’t have any tools,” said Joe Motzer, a Friendship Fire Co. diving rescue member from Phoenixville, Chester County. “Without any of those, you’re slipping.”

Motzer and some of his fellow crew members lowered themselves into the hole in the ice, submerging themselves neck-deep into the icy waters.

“It’s ice, but we’re all geared up for it,” Motzer said. “For the brief amount of time we’re in there, it’s cold, but it’s not like the polar bear plunge where you’re jumping in in your swimsuit.”

Most of the firefighters had dry suits on with multiple layers underneath, Stahl said. Some wore ice suits specifically made to be easily donned in an emergency ice rescue.

“Ice rescue shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes,” Stahl said. “A dry suit will keep you dry, but it won’t keep you warm.”

There are other benefits to an actual ice suit, too, he said.

“Sometimes it’s like a hazmat suit,” Stahl said. “You don’t know what’s in the water. There could be pesticides, farm runoff, manure, human waste. You want some type of barrier between you and that.”

Next generation rescuer: Samantha Shroyer, a 16-year-old volunteer firefighter from Mount Wolf, was watching and taking photos of the training on Sunday. This is the second year she’s helped with photos.

“I can’t wait until I can get certified myself,” she said. “I’m looking forward to actually getting in the water and seeing what it feels like.”

Shroyer will have to wait another two years before she gets her chance, because Pennsylvania law requires all trainees to be at least 18 years old.

Tips for staying safe: The temperature is expected to stay above freezing during the day for the rest of the week, according to the National Weather Service. This will cause ice to melt and create a puddle on top of the ice.

Temperatures will dip below freezing overnight, re-freezing the water. Stahl said this is dangerous because it can create more bubbles in the ice, making it easier for the ice to break apart.

“Ice doesn’t form in uniform thickness,” he said. “It could be 3 inches on one side and 12 inches on the other. Shore ice is the first to form, but it’s also the first to decay.”

Stahl said people should stay off iced-over ponds and lakes, especially as it warms up.

“No ice is ever safe,” he said. “We ask that if you go out, to go out in pairs of two. Wear a life jacket. Try to get a thickness of the ice using an auger or an ice staff.”