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Reporter falls through the ice: Dive team hones rescuing skills

Contributed Brad Berning with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office helped "rescue" Echo Press reporter Celeste Beam from the frigid waters of Lake Darling last Friday.1 / 2
Members of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, including road deputies, investigators and dive team members were certified in thin ice rescue using the new Mustang survival suit.2 / 2

Inch by inch, step by baby little step, we moved closer and closer to the edge.

With every teeny-tiny step, the crackling and gurgling sounds coming from beneath our feet became more frequent and more frightening.

Until, SPLASH! Down we went, right through the thin ice into the frigid waters of Lake Darling.

Last week, members of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, including dive team members, investigators and road deputies, took part in a three-day training on thin ice rescue.

The training included becoming certified in the use of the Mustang - a survival suit designed especially for thin ice rescues. This piece of rescue equipment is fairly new to the department, according to Greg Windhurst, dive team leader and sergeant for the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.

On the last day of training, I, along with Ken Anderson from the sheriff's office, played victims who fell through the ice while deputies tried out the suit and came to our rescue.

For Anderson, who is a member of the dive team, being on and IN the frozen lake was not that big of deal. For me, however, it was a bit more scary.

Luckily, though, thanks to Kay Hultman, dive team member who works at the Douglas County Jail, I was warm (somewhat) and dry as she let me wear her wet suit.

Thin ice rescue training is a course law enforcement and rescue personnel take through Dive Rescue International. Kevin Smith with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office was certified in this training course and was the instructor for the three-day training. Since Smith is a certified instructor, Windhurst said it cut down on costs because an instructor didn't have to fly out from Colorado, which is where Dive Rescue International is located.

Typically, the dive team trains once a month and in normal circumstances, road deputies, investigators and other sheriff's office personnel don't train with them. However, Windhurst said he wanted members outside the dive team, especially the road deputies, to be trained using the Mustang survival suit because more than likely, they would be one of the first persons on scene in an ice rescue emergency.

"We want to make sure our deputies are educated on this type of procedure," he said, adding that deputies do carry other ice rescue equipment in their squad cars, such as life jacket, ropes and Nebulus flotation device.

By statute, Windhurst said that the sheriff's office is responsible for all water-related calls within the county - regardless of where it is located.

Most often, he said, there are three different stages to a rescue. In normal circumstances, a road deputy is first on scene, followed by an ambulance crew and/or first responder unit. Lastly, if a dive team is needed, its members are last to arrive because they have to stop at the watershed to pick up the dive team trailer and all the necessary equipment.

Although ice rescue or regular water rescues don't happen frequently, Windhurst said there isn't a year that goes by where the dive team doesn't go out on a call.

Most often, he said, people end up doing a "self-rescue," where they get themselves out of the water if they have fallen through.

Windhurst said in a "perfect world," everyone who steps foot on a frozen lake would wear a life preserver, but he knows that doesn't happen.

However, it didn't stop him from encouraging and urging people to do so. For those who spend time in a fish house, he said there are things they can have with them in case of an emergency like falling through the ice. He said to at least have a life jacket or even a boat cushion in the fish house, along with some rope and some ice picks. If people don't want to purchase ice picks, Windhurst said all they have to do is carry a couple of large nails in their coat pocket as they can work in a pinch. Nails hammered into a wooden dowel will also work well, he said.

Windhurst couldn't stress enough the importance of people being aware of their surroundings and checking the ice before they venture out on a lake.

People need to be careful, he added.

"Right now, no vehicles should be on the ice in Douglas County. It's just not safe," he stressed.

If by chance, someone does go through the ice and the dive team is called out, Windhurst said the team will work a full hour in recovery mode.

"We will do what we need to do and then turn the person over to EMS workers," said Windhurst. "We will try our best to save every person."

And with the addition of the Mustang survival suit, along with all the training, Windhurst hopes each emergency is a success.