Ice rescue training on the Great Lakes

Coast Guard men and women standing the watch on the Great Lakes perform their missions in one of the nation’s most environmentally challenging areas, and one element above all others presents the biggest challenge – ice. This winter season has already seen some incredible rescues, including two people stranded atop an adrift ice floe, two dozen disoriented fishermen lost during an overnight snowstorm and a snowmobiler whose machine fell through the ice. The men and women of the Ninth Coast Guard District train for these high-risk missions at the service’s Ice Capabilities Center of Excellence. Here is the story of one of the school’s latest graduates.

Night Time Ice Rescue Training

An ice rescue team uses a rescue sled to pull a man out of the water after he fell through the ice on Lake Michigan as part of a night time training exercise. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Jorgensen.

Written By PA1 John Masson

For Petty Officer 2nd Class William Phillips, it might have been tempting to simply turn up the thermostat inside Station Oswego, N.Y., and wait for winter to go away.

After all, this is the 28-year-old Tennessean’s first tour in the northern United States, and it’s a lot colder on the Great Lakes than at stations in Galveston, Texas, and Tybee Island, Ga., where he’d previously served.

“I didn’t have very much experience with ice and ice rescue before this,” he said. “I had only gotten out on the ice three or four times.”

Of course, waiting out the weather isn’t really the Coast Guard’s style. So the presence of Phillips and his Station Oswego shipmate, Petty Officer 2nd Class Shaun Wilson, on a frozen Lake Huron for a four-day “train the trainer” course at the Ice Capabilities Center of Excellence wasn’t a complete surprise.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Bell

Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Bell provides feedback to a team of ice rescuers who had just pulled him out of a hole on Lake Michigan during night-time ice rescue training. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Jorgensen.

“The school was great. It was fun,” Phillips said. “It actually challenged us, but it definitely challenged us in a positive way. My comfort level has just skyrocketed, as far as what I feel my capabilities are, but looking back to just a couple of years ago I never would have thought I’d be operating on an ice-covered lake with people depending on me.”

The eight-year Coast Guardsman said he looked forward to the challenge of learning ice rescue techniques when he first learned he was heading to the Great Lakes. He added that the Center of Excellence didn’t disappoint him.

The course began with classroom training inside the station, in Essexville, Mich. First up was terminology, then drilling on some of the movements required of teams taking part in coordinated ice rescues. Then it was on to personal protective equipment and what that gear would and would not do to protect the people using it.

“Then it was time for hands-on experience – actually getting out on the ice and getting comfortable with it,” Phillips said.

The on-ice work included training in teams around a 40-by-20-foot gash carved into the ice of Saginaw Bay. The four-student teams spread out on the ice around the hole, with instructors evaluating their performance at each position. Later, participants would be evaluated in the trainer’s role, since the goal of the course is minting new trainers to take the latest information back to their stations.

In Phillips’ case, that means a station with an area of responsibility that includes the very different conditions on Lake Ontario, some of New York state’s Finger Lakes and the navigable waters of New York’s canal system.

Saginaw Ice Rescue Training

Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeremy Timothy, crewmember aboard Coast Guard Cutter Morro Bay, pulls a fellow Coast Guardsman out of the water while practicing ice-rescue techniques. Weeks later, the Morro Bay crew rescued a man who went missing after he fell through the ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Jorgensen.

It’s an area Phillips said he’s glad to be serving.

“Actually, it’s beautiful,” he said. “Upstate New York is nothing like I imagined. You hear the words ‘New York,’ and you picture something completely different.”

Now that he’s back at the station, Phillips is eager to organize some training for his fellow Coast Guardsmen at the station who share search-and-rescue responsibilities.

“Oh, absolutely, I want to get down to one of the lakes and run some good scenario-based stuff, work with the guys to tell them about the changes that have been made [to ice rescue techniques],” Phillips said. “They’ve all got to be ice qualified, and there’s only a handful of us who have actually been to the school. We’re the ones that went this year, so we’re the ones that are able to pass the information on.”

Emergency workers from other area agencies can benefit too.

“They do encourage us to work with other local agencies and teach them what we know,” Phillips said of the Coast Guard training staff at the Ice Capabilities Center of Excellence. “Some of the skills that we’ve learned, about being safe on the ice, can be passed on. It will help make others more aware of how to survive out there.”

Ice rescue training

Click the above image to see a video on the Ice Capabilities Center of Excellence. U.S. Coast Guard video by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Jorgensen.

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