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Collinsburg, Sutersville firemen practice cold water rescue

| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 9:02 p.m.
Joe Napsha | The Times-Sun
Trainer Matt Jones, a Collinsburg firefighter, works with two firefighters on an exercise requiring the rescuer to get into the water to rescue the victim Feb. 4, 2014, at Goehring Pond in West Newton..
Joe Napsha | The Times-Sun
Collinsburg fire Chief Joel Koricich (left) and Matt Jones, a Collinsburg firefighter, both of whom are state-certified water rescue instructors, explain ice rescue techniques to a group of Collinsburg and Sutersville firefighters on Feb. 4, 2014, at Goehring Pond in West Newton.

On an ice-covered pond in West Newton, a group of about 15 firefighters from Collinsburg and Sutersville braved sub-freezing temperatures last week to learn how to safely rescue people stranded on ice, requiring them to jump into the water to pull a victim out of danger and momentarily submersing themselves under water.

“Boy, was that cold,” Michael T. Manley, Sutersville deputy fire chief, said after going underwater in a hole cut into the ice of Goehring Pond as the final exercise of the evening's training.

The members of the two fire companies – which are located on opposite shores of the Youghiogheny River – were completing the ice portion of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's 16-hour Ice Rescue and Emergency Response class taught by Collinsburg fire Chief Joel Koricich and Matthew Jones, a Collinsburg firefighter. Both of them are instructors certified by the Fish and Boat Commission.

Koricich offered some sage advice to the firefighters practicing ice rescues.

“Think urgency. Think backup,” said Koricich, a water and ice rescue technician.

In the program, students learn how to identify ice conditions, use ice rescue equipment and practice shore, boat and direct contact ice rescue techniques, the Fish and Boat Commission said.

Dressed in a wet suit, neoprene gloves and boots and a special flotation device strapped to their chest, the firefighters went through about 2 12 hours of the training class.

Despite all of the layers of clothing, Levi Rocco, one of about a dozen Sutersville firefighters participating in the training class, said he felt the cold around his neck.

With one firefighter acting as a “victim” on the ice, firefighters learned to toss a rope to a victim “stranded” about 50 feet from the shore; to use a rod to test the ice as they walked to the victim; to use ice awls ­– two pointed-end tools to be held in each hand to dig into the ice and get themselves out of the water; and to use a special rescue raft that slides across the ice and has an opening in the front so a rescuer lying prone can pull the victim out of the water.

As a last resort, the firefighters were shown how to go into the water to rescue a victim who can't get themselves out of water. The rescuer is secured by a rope to fellow emergency responders on the shore, who pull both the victim and emergency responder to safety.

“We're trying to train the emergency responders (rescue) procedures without going out on the ice. The best place to do an ice rescue is to do it from the shore,” said Brad Tracey of York, chairman of the Pennsylvania Water Rescue Instructors Association, a statewide organization of about 50 members.

It is important for emergency responders to learn safe techniques for rescuing a person trapped on ice or in icy water so they don't become victims themselves, Tracey said.

“We teach the emergency responders how to take care of themselves,” Tracey said.

If emergency responders run out onto the ice without proper safety procedures in place, “they could fall in and be in no better condition,” than the victim they are trying to rescue, Tracey said.

Upon completion of the 16-hour course, three more team members were added to the Collinsburg fire company's response team and an ice rescue component has been added to the Sutersville fire department's water rescue team. They are among more than 25,000 students who have been trained in what the Fish and Boat Commission says is the largest nonprofit, public water and ice rescue training program in the United States. The Fish and Boat Commission started the Pennsylvania Water Rescue Program in 1983.

Manley told the story of seeing two people foolishly walking across the frozen Youghiogheny River near Gratztown in Sewickley Township.

Despite what appears to be thick ice after several days of sub-freezing temperatures, ice varies in its thickness due to heat, vegetation and even fish, Tracey said.

“There is no such thing as safe ice. The worst time is when it is starting to form and starting to decay,” Tracey said of when the ice is most dangerous for someone walking on it.

On a moving river, pack ice can shift unexpectedly, opening a hole to the water, then closing just as quickly, Tracy said.

“They could be swept underneath the ice and we would never find them,” Tracey said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-836-5252.

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