While most people did their best to stay out of the bitter cold last week, personnel from two local fire departments took advantage of the freezing temperatures for some cold water training.
Members of the Farmington Fire Department and the Big River Fire Department took advantage of an ice-covered Geissing Lake in Engler Park to hold an ice water training course by using wet suits specifically designed to protect the firefighters from hypothermia.
“It was basically a refresher course for us,” said Captain Mark Mattina with the Farmington Fire Department. “It’s great to be able to get in the water and train when the water is in such horrible condition.”
On Jan. 6, the fire department cut a large section of the ice big enough for several firefighters to enter the water and practice rescuing a victim who had fallen through an ice-covered body of water.
“Hands-on training is crucial in our world,” Mattina said. “Normally we don’t have cold weather like this, so it was good that we could train in this type of element. You have to keep these suits away from bleach, so we can’t just go to a pool and train.
"So, what better way to test the suits and train then when the lake is frozen like it has been?”
Mattina added that, thankfully, they have not had to make any cold water extractions. But the possibility is always there due to the number of bodies of water in the area.
“I can’t begin to tell you how many ponds and small lakes we have in the county...the city of Farmington has several themselves,” Mattina said. “We normally do not have cold like this. Last year, it was only really cold for three or four days. Ice would form on the lakes and the ponds but it would not completely cover.”
Although the departments used this cold weather to train for ice water recovery, the majority of Farmington’s firefighters received their training at a school that trains in some of the worst cold water conditions.
“Initially, we are sent to a school in Wisconsin,” Mattina said. “What better place to train than in those type of conditions. And, although we don’t see the ice Wisconsin sees, a victim may still fall through the ice when they are crossing a creek or a pond.”
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The cold water suits the firefighters wear during this type of training are specifically designed for the frigid waters. Although the victim’s life may be in peril, the rescuer is not.
“These suits are specifically designed for cold water rescue. We are actually very warm – almost sweating – even if the victim is suffering from hypothermia,” Mattina said. “Anything that is basically exposed, and that is usually only our face, gets cold. These suits are designed to be amazingly water tight and buoyant.”
According to Mattina, air actually gets trapped in the suits and the rescuer must purge most of that air once in the water.
“When you get into the water, the deeper you get, the more pressure it puts on the body - making all the trapped air come to the top,” Mattina said. “The first thing you need to do is to purge all of the excess air trapped in the suit. This is why we go into the water feet first.”
Although Farmington firefighters are either certified or will be certified in ice water training - including the part-time crew - Mattina said a person should take precautions around frozen bodies of water so their services are not needed.
“Definitely, stay off the water, don’t chance it,” Mattina said. “When someone is submerged, they may be viable for set amount of time...each person is different. For example, children seem to last longer than adults. Your body will begin to shut down because it is suffering from shock. That is typically what it does.”
Mattina stated if someone has fallen into the icy water, first call 911 and keep talking to the person.
“You want to talk to the person and keep them as calm as possible,” Mattina said. “I know it’s difficult. We are trained to go to devastating incidents, and we have to take control. We do it by simply making eye contact with the victim and getting on their wave length. It instills trust in them, and they begin to calm down.”
Mattina’s best advice is to just stay off the water. The ice is typically not tested, so there is no way of guaranteeing a person’s safety.