TOWNSEND — Each winter, people are injured from exposure in cold water incidents. Skaters and ice fishermen fall through the ice, and boaters and canoeists overturn their crafts.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, each year there are over 7,000 drownings and 20,000 near drownings in the United States. Over half of these incidents occur in cold water.
Fire Chief William Donahue is working to prevent ice and cold water accidents in Townsend now that winter is near. “In my opinion, the only truly safe ice is a skating rink. Moving water like a lake is never safe,” he said.
Donahue said the Townsend Fire and Ambulance departments are equipped to do water and ice rescues.
“We’ve had the training and we have the equipment to do it. It’s one of those things you have to be ready for, but hope you never have to do.”
Donahue explained that ice on moving water in rivers, streams and brooks is never safe. “The thickness of ice on ponds and lakes depends upon water currents or springs, depth and natural objects such as trees or rocks,” he said. “Daily changes in temperature cause the ice to expand and contract, which affects its strength. Due to all of these factors, no one can declare the ice to be absolutely safe.
The principle danger of being in cold water is hypothermia, which according to Donahue, sets in quickly. “Any water that is cooler than normal body temperature is by definition cold water,” he said.
“The lower the temperature of the water, the faster hypothermia sets in,” said the chief. “You will loose most of your body heat through your head, underarms and crotch area. If you go into the water, fold yourself up to help keep the body heat in until someone can rescue you.”
Lt. Michael Grimley and EMT Bonnie Brady demonstrated the water rescue techniques Townsend fire uses.
Grimley donned the “Gumby suit” that is waterproof and keeps the rescuer dry and warm. Two EMTs assisted him in getting suited up for the exercise.
“This is why we need manpower at these rescues. The suit itself is difficult to get on,” Donahue said.
As the rescuer gets suited up, other fire and ambulance personnel use throw bags to try to reach the victim. “We can throw these out to the person in the water to keep them buoyant and maybe start pulling them into shore. It is a very intensive procedure, with the only goal to save the victim,” Donahue explained.
Brady played the victim in the scenario, which had Grimley getting out to her and beginning the rescue process. “I come up behind the victim,” he said. “The victim can begin flailing when the rescuer is out there, so getting behind stops them from bringing us down. Even if we submerge, with the suit and me holding the victim, we will come back up.”
Grimley demonstrated having one part of the rescue rope with a person on the shore while he put the rope around Brady and helped her into shore. Grimley demonstrated the series of hand signals used by the rescuer in the water to the rescuer on dry land.
Donahue said the equipment needed for ice and water rescues is expensive, but needed.
“It’s like all the equipment we have to have, you hope you never need it, but if it saves one person’s life, it is well worth the investment,” he said. “The Gumby suits are around $500 each and the town has four of them.”
Donahue and the office of the state fire marshal want residents to be aware of the dangers of going out on the ice.
“One rule is that if you do go on ice, never be alone,” Donahue concluded.