Members of Harpswell’s three fire-and-rescue agencies participate in ice rescue training on Pleasant Pond in Richmond, Feb. 18. (Ted Merriman photo)

“Always expect ice to be unsafe,” says Scott Holowach, longtime firefighter, emergency medical technician and ice rescue technician. On Feb. 18, Holowach and Dan Reynolds, both of the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department, taught an ice rescue course to 12 students from Harpswell’s three fire departments.

A lecture at the Orr’s Island Schoolhouse was followed by in-the-water training at Pleasant Pond in Richmond, the closest place with ice thick enough to stand on.

The response to the course was a milestone for Harpswell’s fire-and-rescue service. A few years ago, Holowach was the only ice rescue technician in Harpswell. This left a big gap, because an ice rescue should involve several certified personnel.

There are three levels of certification: awareness (lecture only); operations (on shore to ready equipment, help technicians suit up, and pull patients and rescuers to solid ice or ground with ropes); and technicians (all phases of the operation, including going in the water in survival suits).

Last year, the first training produced three new technicians, bringing the total to five. This year, 11 new technicians were certified and one person was certified for operations.

Soon-to-be ice rescue technician Rosie Buonaiuto, of the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department, attends training in Richmond. (Ted Merriman photo)

The first protocol is to try to throw something to the person in the water, such as a rope, stick or ladder. If that doesn’t work, technicians can enter the icy water in suits while hooked to a rope that is secured by people on shore. To get into the water, they walk on the ice as far as is safe, then proceed on their hands and knees, then on their stomachs, so as not to break the ice.

The technician then has several options for securing the patient. They can wrap their arms around the patient and hold the patient while both are pulled to safety. Other options are a type of stretcher called a Stokes basket, a rescue board, or a sling that binds the patient to the rescuer. The patient and rescuer are always pulled ashore together.

Most rescues, says Holowach, involve kids falling through the ice or pet owners trying to rescue their pets. Ice should be at least 4 inches thick for skaters, ice fishermen and others to walk on it.

“It was great to have turnout from all three departments, and to get to see what gear and operational guidelines each of the three in-town departments use,” said Reynolds, one of the trainers. “Training like this is key to all of us being able to work together on these types of calls. … Everyone in the class was very actively engaged and did an excellent job at showing mastery of their skills.”

The course was not only educational; it was also fun. The departments applaud this large group of responders for their efforts and dedication.