ON THIN ICE | SierraSun.com


Ryan Salm/Sierra SunShawn Haywood rescues two drowning dummies during an ice rescue traing exercise for the North Tahoe Fire District on Thursday.

It would have been easy to call Scott Baumgardner and the two others he was with dummies as they jumped into the ice-covered water of Tahoe Vista’s Snow Creek on Thursday.

Dressed head to toe in insulated plastic and neoprene, Baumgardner, a part-time firefighter with the North Tahoe Fire Protection District, was the smartest of the trio. The other two were, well, real dummies.

The ill-advised swim in the 33-degree water was all part of the fire district’s ice rescue refresher course that had Baumgardner and the two dummies playing victims.

Because the Tahoe-area and the Sierra don’t have consistent freezing temperatures, skaters, snowshoers and snowmobilers beware: Ice that appears solid could be dangerously thin, according to North Tahoe Fire Chief Duane Whitelaw.

“Anyone should exercise extreme caution whenever walking out on an ice patch or an area that is known to be a lake,” Whitelaw said.

The Truckee Fire Protection District and Truckee Police Department respond to some sort of ice rescue incident each year, according to Truckee Fire Capt. Rod Brock.

The most tragic occurred in early 2004 when a Truckee man died after he tried to cross Boca Reservoir on his snowmobile. A husband, father and experienced snowmobiler, Troy Taylor died after an hour and twenty minutes submerged in 34-degree water.

Five different agencies responded to the scene, but Taylor was pronounced dead after he was airlifted to Tahoe Forest Hospital aboard a CHP helicopter.

His death was ruled a drowning.

When a person falls into freezing water, “Caution and common sense are the most important things” for potential rescuers to exercise, said North Tahoe Fire Captain Steve Simons.

First, an immediate call to 911 shortens the rescue time. A safe rescue, on average, requires three or four experts and takes less than 20 minutes.

“The sooner we get to them the more viable the patient will be,” Simons said.

Rescuers suit up in insulated uniforms and helmets, creep across the ice with a rope and flotation devices and pull the victim out of the water from behind. The land-based crew pulls the victim and rescuer in by rope.

In an additional training exercise last week, North Tahoe Fire rescued four simulated victims in a total of 15 minutes once they arrived on the scene, Simons said.

When a potential ice rescue call comes in on the North Shore, the dispatcher alerts the fire department, which then calls Placer County Sheriff’s dive team.

If a victim is submerged in icy waters, only certified divers can make the sub-surface rescues and body recoveries. North Tahoe Fire trains and re-freshes the entire department in ice rescue techniques and safety each winter, Simons said.

However, Truckee’s fire and police departments have a joint dive rescue team, including more than a dozen personnel certified in sub-surface, ice or open water dives. Every Truckee firefighter and police officer is certified in surface ice rescues.

The biggest risk on the part of rescuers is drowning. Experts say their biggest concern is when victims use rescuers as ladders in a panicked effort to get to safety.

“It’s real common for one victim to turn into multiple victims,” said Shawn Heywood, a North Tahoe firefighter-paramedic.

According to Truckee Fire’s Brock, civilians who try to rescue a person who has fallen through the ice must first avoid becoming a victim themselves. Stay away from both the hole and the victim, he said.

“If someone falls through the ice, do not try to go after them,” Brock said.

Simons agreed.

“The bottom line; there’s a increased likelihood that the next person going in to help the first person will become a victim themselves,” Simons said.

Following a safe rescue, victims are at risk of hypothermia ” when the body temperature drops below the level required for normal metabolism and bodily functioning. Symptoms include, among other things, weakness and loss of coordination, confusion and uncontrollable shivering

Rescuers’ Ice Commander suits keep their bodies warm and dry, so they are not at risk of hypothermia themselves.

“I’m the hottest person out there,” Heywood said. “I’m not wet one drop … I could stay [in the pond] all day long and be okay.”

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