Firefighters practice ice rescues

ARLINGTON — A man flailed his arms and shouted “Help me! Help me!” from the middle of a frozen pond near Arlington on Tuesday.

Woodinville firefighter Greg Garat was in the chilly water as part of an ice-rescue training program for 20 firefighters from around the region.

A pair of firefighters scurried across the ice to pluck Garat out of the frozen pond.

Using a rope, rescuers on the shore pulled the men to safety.

Garat said practicing in the subfreezing water was cold despite wearing protective gear.

“I can only imagine if it was your whole body and you didn’t have a wetsuit on,” he said.

Stuck in the frozen water without proper gear would “be a very disheartening place to be,” he said.

Subfreezing temperatures have created a thin layer of ice on many Snohomish County ponds and lakes.

It’s a dangerous temptation, officials said. The partially frozen ponds can be fatal.

Last year a 15-year-old boy died when he fell into Martha Lake.

That’s why area firefighters participate in special training to learn to safely pull people from the frozen waters.

In the early ’90s, Snohomish County Fire District 1 crews realized the danger from ice was high and that they were unprepared to launch an adequate rescue response, said Gary Westerman, a member of District 1’s rescue squad.

“We had no capability to get people out,” he said.

Westerman and District 1 Capt. Andy Speier went to Calgary in Canada to learn special ice-rescue techniques.

Since then, they’ve led training programs at least once a year.

On Tuesday, crews from Arlington Heights, Lake Stevens, Shoreline, Woodinville and Maple Valley joined Fire District 1 to jump in the frozen waters and pull each other out.

For some, the day was a refresher course; for others, it was their first time on the ice.

“There’s no substitute for training in the actual conditions,” Speier said.

On Monday, the class practiced sliding prone across the frozen surface of the Lynnwood Ice Center. Tuesday, they took to the frozen pond to simulate rescue conditions.

“No one is excited about being out in the rain and snow, but this is what it’s really like,” said Speier, who was the team leader the night the boy fell into Martha Lake a year ago.

The goal is to be prepared and ready to reach someone in trouble within about 10 minutes, Westerman said.

After that, hypothermia can set in and people lose the ability to grab a rope or stay afloat, he said.

Once a person dips below the waters, “the odds of getting them up in time is bad,” Fire District 1 firefighter John Giddings said.

The best bet is to stay off the ice, he said.

“Always assume that if you go on the ice, you’re going to break through,” Westerman said.

Once you fall in, it’s virtually impossible to get out by yourself, he said.

Once submerged, firefighters used picklike ice awls to grip the ice and flippers to help lift them out of the water.

From the shore it’s impossible to judge the strength of the ice, Speier said.

People will sometimes try to test the ice next to the shore, he said. They wrongly assume strong ice at the edge means thick ice in the middle of the lake, and believe the water near the shore is shallow.

On Tuesday, Speier needed a chain saw to cut a hole in the middle of the ice, but the surface near the shore gave way under his weight. Water near the shore was about 5 feet deep.

If someone sees someone else fall in, “do whatever you can from the shore,” Speier said.

Don’t go out after them. Instead, call 911.

“We don’t want to throw one body after another,” Westerman said.

Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or

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