Robert Katz was enjoying a morning of ice fishing at the widewater area of the C&O Canal when he slipped into the water. Katz flailed in the frozen canal waters, screaming for help until members of the Montgomery County Water Rescue Team were able to go out onto the ice shelf and pull Katz to safety.
Luckily for Katz, the event was a demonstration of rescue techniques. He was wearing a dry suit which protected him from the water while he acted as the victim.
If Katz had fallen in by himself, he might have as little as 10 minutes before he started to lose feeling in his limbs. “You lose fine and gross motor skills in the first 10 minutes,” said Lt. Kevin Bridgett of Cabin John Station 10, one of the demonstrators.
Depending on such factors as water temperature, body mass, and the amount of clothing the victim is wearing, the time it takes to lose consciousness can vary from 10 to 60 minutes.
Bridgett stressed that no matter how long the temperatures have been below freezing, residents should not go out onto the ice. “In Montgomery County, the only safe ice is in your drink,” Bridgett said.
When a person’s body hits the water, a physiological reaction takes place that constricts the airways. This reaction helps people to avoid drowning, but it also restricts breathing for the first few seconds. “His breath is, literally, taken away from him,” Bridgett said.
Katz, even though he was expecting to go in, he found the situation scary. “That first cold shock and you can’t take a breath,” he said.
Residents who see a person fall into the water should not go out on the ice to help them. “It’s probably not a good idea to add stress to the ice,” Bridgett said. “You’ll probably create a bigger problem.”
Witnesses should call 911 immediately. If possible, they can try to offer the victim a pole, but should be careful not to be pulled in themselves.
Since ice rescue teams and river rescue teams are the same, they are positioned at locations along the river. For Potomac residents this means that response times for an ice rescue are among the shortest in the county.
In the case of an incident at the C&O Canal, rescue personnel could typically get to victims within 10 minutes.
In other parts of the county, “they do not have the specialized equipment to do the water rescues,” said Peter Fiackos, a spokesperson for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department.
Other departments may be able to perform some rescues, but not all.
When crews arrive, they walk out towards the victim hitting the ice with a pole to test its strength. As they approach the victim, the will get onto their stomachs and slither forward. “It spreads out their body weight,” said Bryan Duffer, firefighter/EMT with Cabin John.
They then slip a sling over the victim which helps them hold on. “The main thing is not to lose the victim,” Duffer said.
If the victim is injured, firefighters might use a special kind of stretcher called a Stokes basket so that the person can be moved without further injury.
Once the victim is secure, firemen on the shore begin pulling furiously at the ropes the firemen have attached to themselves and to the victim.
The victim and rescuers are pulled across the ice. They remain down, keeping their weight spread out, and don’t force the victim, likely tired and moving with difficulty, to expend more energy.
County Fire and Rescue teams have not had to perform any ice rescues this year, yet. The last ice rescue that firefighters on the scene could remember was six years ago. They typically train once a week to keep their skills sharp.
The most important thing to remember, said Bridgett, is not to go out onto the ice. “No ice is safe ice,” he said.