At the Mercy of the Elements

>As I reported here previously, I had a chance to visit the Coast Guard’s Ice Capabilities Center of Excellence at Station Saginaw River, in Essexville, Michigan on February 4th with my friend Larry MacDonald, the mayor of Bayfield, Wisconsin. Given the recent Lake Erie mass rescue of stranded ice fishermen, I thought I’d share my impressions of the training we conduct.

(Left: I’m standing with Bayfield Mayor Larry MacDonald, and Boatswain’s Mate Master Chief Gerald Backus as we prepare for ice rescue training at the ICCE.)

The visit was an opportunity for me to get in the water and experience an ice rescue first-hand, and to introduce Mayor MacDonald to the Coast Guard’s premier specialized ice rescue training program. Mayor MacDonald is a strong supporter of the Coast Guard and has been a great friend to our station in Bayfield.

Community first responders and Coast Guard men and women from around the country come to Station Saginaw River every ice season to practice their techniques and test their capabilities during the extreme winter ice seasons experienced on Saginaw Bay. Indeed, there were two members of Ohio’s Lorain County Fire Department participating in the training during my visit.


(Right: I’m learning to use ice picks to pull myself
from the water during training at the ICCE.)

Master Chief Gerald Backus, Station Saginaw River’s Officer in Charge, and his crew hold four one-week classes each winter. A typical class has 25 to 28 students.

This innovative joint training helps first responders better understand their own and others’ capabilities — and limitations — during the winter ice season. Such knowledge can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Since our ice season began this year, Coast Guard crews of the Ninth District have saved 138 people who were in trouble on the ice. Sadly, there have also been 11 ice-related deaths this season, nearly three times the number from last season. Many of the deaths occurred when vehicles crashed through unpredictable ice.

Remember, hypothermia can set in rapidly in cold water. During the trip to the ICCE, I had a chance to try out the Coast Guard’s standard cold water equipment and to experience being rescued by the crew of Station Saginaw River.

(Below: Video of my day of training at the ICCE)

After that experience, I can’t imagine going out onto the ice without proper gear or telling someone where I was going. To those of you who choose to recreate on the ice, stay safe and exercise common sense. Mother Nature shows little mercy during the winter months and I don’t want anyone to get hurt while having fun.

All in all a great visit! It’s good to see the rigor behind our training and good to see our partner response agencies from the local and state level training with us. Search and Rescue, especially during the winter, is an “all-hands” evolution.

Semper Paratus,
RDML N

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