There aren’t many people who see a sunny, 55-degree day in March and think, “let’s get out on the ice.”
But those are perfect conditions for Madison Fire Department’s Lake Rescue Team, the unit tasked with saving anyone who might fall through the ice.
“Who’s getting in first?” asks Lt. Tom Schaller, leader of the Lake Rescue Team and a member for the past 28 years. A dozen firefighters gather around him, in various states of dress. A few are in bright yellow waterproof suits. Some are in full scuba gear.
The team has 57 trained scuba and lake rescue divers. Each must complete over 200 hours of training to become a member of the team, and then keep current throughout the year with practice dives in varying conditions.
The lake is a year-round playground, so the team has to be ready for anything. Lake rescue calls are unpredictable, but the department gets calls every month. In the summer it’s mostly boat accidents and turnovers. In the winter, between ice fishing, skating, fat biking and ATVs, it’s usually people falling through the ice.
“The big problems are always first ice and last ice,” Schaller says. Winters like this one, with wildly fluctuating temperatures, are especially dangerous. “You can end up with really solid ice near shore, and it can be much thinner the farther you go. Ice is never 100 percent safe. Ever.”
Today, the Lake Rescue Team is conducting a citywide training for firefighters who aren’t on the team. They’re at the Tenney Park Locks, practicing on the last remaining ice on Lake Mendota.
“The object of today’s training is to get some more firefighters familiar with the ice training, just in case the scuba team would be busy at a structure fire or a large car accident,” says Elizabeth Smith, a firefighter at Station 5. After today, she’ll be qualified to act as a backup for lake rescues.
The thin, quickly melting ice is perfect for a training exercise, because it’s exactly the kind of conditions under which people usually fall in.
“The ice was still strong enough for me to put some of my weight on it, and that made it easier for me to rescue one of my fellow firefighters who’s acting as a victim today,” Smith says.
Smith and her fellow firefighters are getting familiar with Mustang suits, the insulated, waterproof suits that allow rescuers to brave the frigid lake. Time is of the essence in ice rescues, so it’s vital that firefighters be able to suit up quickly. “Usually, in cold water like this, people don’t last very long,” says Schaller. “The cold zaps the strength out of you, disorients you. So the sooner we can get on the scene and get ’em out, the better it is.” Usually, rescuers have about 30 minutes to get to someone in freezing water. “Past that, it doesn’t look good,” Schaller says.
Trainees are also learning techniques — like how to pull a floating rescue sled onto the ice, and the best way to secure a rescued victim so the sled won’t capsize. Shore crews are working hard too, getting the feel for assuming command over a rescue situation.
The Lake Rescue Team also has an airboat, which helps divers power across ice and water alike. But the trainees aren’t going to get the keys to that anytime soon.
Schaller is happy to be building out the farm team for lake rescues. Working on water or ice is dangerous, even by firefighter standards.
“Ice rescue is one of the most dangerous things we do,” Schaller says. “People die just during training exercises. We have to stay trained so it’s like an instinct to us.”
52: Number of lake rescue call responses in 2016. That’s up from 23 in 2015. The number of rescues in a year varies tremendously.
57: Full-time members of the Lake Rescue Team. Six divers are on duty 24/7 to respond to calls from the Madison Police Department and Dane County Sheriff’s Office — everything from topside emergencies, to underwater and ice rescues, and vehicle recovery.
$1,200: Cost of one of those nifty Mustang Suits. The fire department has five of them.
20 percent: Area of the city of Madison that is water.
Tuesday: The day of the week, all year long, that the dive team practices. Keep an eye out.