U.S. Coast Guard, Duluth Fire train for ice rescues on Lake Superior

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The U.S. Coast Guard and the Duluth Fire Department worked together on Thursday for a joint water rescue training.

“We have done this many, many times,” said Rescue One Captain Kevin Haney. “We try to do it on an annual basis, both for familiarizing ourselves so that we recognize each other’s faces. Because there’s a lot of times we’re going to wind up doing calls together out on the water and then we can see some of their equipment that we don’t have and they can see what we have that they don’t have.”

The focus for this training was getting more comfortable in a wetsuit and the feeling of bobbing in the water. then, there was training on how to get a victim out of the water.

“We’re doing it by either having somebody who’s stuck on an ice shelf can’t get themselves up; they might be frozen to it at the time or they might still be hanging on,” Haney explained. “We have a couple of different methods of pulling them out. One, approaching them from the ice and not getting in the water. And then the other methods that we normally use, because we tend to go in the water for all of ours, is getting in the water and using a harness from behind and assisting them out as other people pull the rope.”
Some ice looks safer than it is, resulting in a false sense of safety for people venturing out onto the lake.

“The ice might be six, eight inches thick, but it’s honeycomb and that’s not safe ice to be on,” said Haney. “Real black, clear ice is good, solid ice. As it starts to deteriorate, that ice just has a lot of air and a lot of thin spots on it. So people think it looks thick, but it doesn’t support people.”

A variety of situations result in water rescues each year.

“Usually in the beginning of the season, it’s just that the ice thickness, merely that it’s not thick enough for people to be on, and everybody wants to get out and do their ice fishing or snowmobiling or whatever it might be,” said Haney. “They jump the gun a little bit and they wind up getting on to thin ice. Also, they could be testing even good ice and find that it’s four inches thick, good enough to be walking on, but they get to a spot where there’s a just or something else that makes the ice thinner and they wind up going through this time of the year.

On Lake Superior especially, the safety of the ice depends on the day as we experience seasonal change.

“Lake Superior is its own beast, and you might have real safe ice out there, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to break free from where you were and move in,” explained Haney. “And that’s why you really need to pay attention to the weather in the forecast. If there are strong winds predicted, it’s a really bad idea to be on that ice, but it’s a strong likelihood that it’s going to fracture away from land and move.”

If you do need to be rescued, consider your gear gone.

“You have to remember that we’re rescuing people. We’re not rescuing gear,” said Haney. “So if you value your gear more than yourself, remember that we can’t take that with us and you’re going to lose that out there.”

Friday, March 11 is the deadline to remove ice houses from northern Wisconsin’s inland waters. For Minnesota, the deadlines are March 21 for removing ice shelters in the northern third of waters and March 31 for northern border waters. People can still icefish and use shelters, but
they cannot be left out overnight if unoccupied after the removal deadline.

The DNR encourages putting safety first and removing shelters early if conditions are deteriorating.