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Ice Poles

Spring Pre-planning for Surface Ice Rescue
Part II

Surface Ice Rescue Poles

Andrea Zaferes

You just struggled into an ice-rescue suit and donned a harness with a tether to shore; now, with your heart pounding from adrenaline and effort, you painstakingly make your way out on the early winter ice. It cracks and squeaks menacingly as you cross the 175 feet to the victim, but your luck and the ice seem to hold as you get closer and closer. Even with the bulky suit muffling your ears, you can hear the small boy’s cries grow weaker and weaker until he is barely moaning and whimpering. As you close into the final 10 feet, you know you will not be a second too late. Then, just as you believe you are in reach, the ice crushes beneath your knees, and you feel yourself slide back into the hole you just punctured. The kid is only 5 feet away – so close! To get to him, you will have to get yourself out of the hole, but that could take too long. The kid is starting to lose his grip on the ice…

At that moment, would you pay $25 for a tool that would not only help you get out of the hole, but could also let you reach that kid and keep him from slipping under before you even got out and got to him? One of the first things I learned about surface ice rescue from Walt "Butch" Hendrick is the value of an ice pole. The ice rescue pole is one of the most versatile, useful, inexpensive, and portable tools for technician-level ice rescue personnel.

Ice rescue poles have seven main functions:

1. Testing the ice:

Rescuers wearing proper ice rescue suits, water rescue harnesses, tether lines, and other necessary personal protective equipment can approach the victim in several ways. If the ice is fairly strong, rescuers can walk in a low crouch while banging their ice poles in front of them to test the ice. If the poles crack the ice, the rescuers know to try a different route, or proceed forward in a lower posture, either on hands and knees or completely prone. A change in sound of the pole banging can also indicate a change in ice thickness.

2. Stability:

If the rescuers are not wearing ice cleats, the nail at the end of the ice pole can be used to help stabilize rescuers as they proceed towards the victim.

3. Preventing full rescuer submergence:

Rescuers want to avoid full submergence if they puncture through the ice to decrease:

As rescuers feel themselves falling through the ice, they can quickly raise and hold their poles horizontally at mid-chest level to catch either side of the ice roof as they immerse in the water.

4. Distributing weight to get out of an ice hole:

When a rescuer is immersed in a hole, he can use the pole out in front of him on the ice roof to distribute the weight carried by his hands as he gently kicks and pulls his way out of the hole.

5. Assisting aggressive or self-rescue capable victims out of an ice hole:

If a victim is aggressive, the rescuer should stay at a safe distance away to avoid being pulled into the hole or risking injury. The rescuer can get in the proper anchor position, extend the pole to the victim, and command the victim to, "Kick your feet and climb up the pole!" and then "roll away from the hole!" Even if a victim is not aggressive, and does not appear to pose a threat to the rescuer, it is still a good idea to try to keep a pole length away from the victim if possible to prevent breaking the supportive ice onto which the victim is holding.

6. Securing a hold on an alert or passive victim before moving onto the victim’s supportive ice:

The rescuer can reach the loop on one end of the pole towards the victim’s hand. With or without the victim’s assistance, the rescuer can then slip the loop over the victim’s hand and wrist and gently twist the pole to secure the wrist. Once the victim is secured to the pole, the rescuer can approach the victim to secure a flotation sling and establish immediate buoyancy. If the victim begins to submerge as the rescuer approaches, or the supportive ice breaks, the rescuer can tighten up the wrist-hold by further twisting the pole.

7. Assisting two victims simultaneously:

A rescuer can approach one victim while reaching a pole out to another victim close by. The Marsars ice rescue pole allows a rescuer to pass a flotation sling to a victim over 15 feet away. With the proper training, a rescuer can even use this pole to put a flotation sling on a victim from such a great distance away.

Now you know what an ice pole can do for ice rescue technicians, it is time to learn how to make one:

Begin with a seven-foot-long piece of hardwood stair banister; do not use pine because it will splinter apart and break after a few days of hard use. Coat the banister with several applications of boiled linseed oil, as we learned from our students in Port Henry, NY, to help maintain its strength. Drill two holes in one end to attach a loop of stiff line. Drive a nail in the other end and cut off the head to leave a spike. Paint the pole with rescue orange paint for high visibility and wrap several layers of quality duct tape every foot to use as handgrips.

As mentioned earlier, commercially-manufactured ice poles are also available. These poles have various attachments to help extricate animals from ice holes, search for submerged victims, and pass off flotation slings, as well as perform other functions

The next step is to take a good ice rescue training program; when you do, your instructors should teach you how to use an ice pole. While this article is not meant to replace hands-on training with a certified ice rescue instructor, the information presented here can prepare a department for training and can be used as further education or a refresher for already certified teams. Once you have the training, set up several drills to maintain your skills. Pole skills can be practiced on smooth floors where victims and rescuers can be pulled and can slide across without injury. It does not have to be cold outside to practice your ice rescue skills!

Remember, now is the time to book a good training program for next winter, to start budgeting for training and equipment, and to recruit committed operational and technician level members for an ice rescue team. Proper preparation prevents poor performance!

To learn more about ice rescue and patient management, see the Surface Ice Rescue & Patient Management book, workbook, and video by Andrea Zaferes and Walt Hendrick.

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