Nikiski department trains for wet rescues

Firefighters dip into icy waters

Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2001

It's about 10 below zero on a sunny Nikiski lake. While few people would even consider ice fishing on it at that temperature, members of the Nikiski Fire Department went swimming in it.

"It was extremely cold," said Jack Lewis, a water rescue trainer. "But once you got under the ice, it was warmer than above."

The firefighters were practicing under-ice rescue and recovery in order to be certified for ASAP, which stands for arctic and sub-arctic pararescue. Earlier in the year the group practiced low-altitude helicopter jumps and summer water search and recovery.

"This winter we had to bring them up to speed with ice rescue," Lewis said. "They're online now, certified."

The class of five included J.T. Harris, Trent Burnett, Jay Morrison, Kevin Rademacher and Josh Osborn. Harris said all five recently completed engineer training together, as well. The dive team training has been going on a little over a year.

"After your first dive, it's really not that exciting," Harris said. "It was dark, so all the visibility we had came from the lights we brought with us. Everything was the same color.

"But it was pretty cool to go to the bottom and look up at the ice."

Beside winter rescue, the pararescuers are certified to fly to the scene of an emergency in the summer, jump from the helicopter and get the victim either back into the helicopter or onto an inflatable raft to be picked up by boat.

"Jumping was probably the most fun thing we've done ... so far. It was a real kick in the pants," Harris said.

Lewis said even more training is in their future, including river rescue techniques.


Kevin Rademacher adjusts his gear below the lake's surface before venturing out under the ice on a several-minute long dive.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

He said this is the fourth generation of Nikiski firefighters to be trained in ASAP, going back to the early 1980s.

"As the years go by and people retire or move on, we train new ones coming up," he said. "It puts them on status with the rest of the people in the department."

There are 14 active ASAP-certified firefighters and medics in the Nikiski Fire Department, Lewis said.

He said in the 1980s, fire chiefs from peninsula communities and government agencies looked at what kind of training was needed here. They identified wild land and structural fire fighting, but also noted there was a lot of activity on the water, including commercial fishing and work on oil and gas platforms in Cook Inlet.

"Nikiski was identified to take care of the water," Lewis said. "(Central Emergency Services) has a dive team. They concentrate on the river, but can back us up."

With all the activity on oil and gas platforms, including travel to and from them via helicopter, it was important to have rescuers close at hand.

"The Air National Guard at Kulis (Air National Guard Base in Anchorage) are an hour away, so we respond and then they can back us up and do extraction in the Black Hawk (helicopter)," Lewis said.

The Nikiski personnel studied ice rescue in the classroom and then practiced for three days setting up ice rescue operations on Sparkle Lake off Halbouty Road.

The rescuers set up lifelines and equipped back-up divers before going under the ice.

"Nobody goes into the water without a lifeline," Lewis said. "We talk a lot about safety, handling equipment, how to set up safety checks and safety back-ups."


Trent Burnett towels off after a dive. With temperatures hovering near -10, it didn't take long for wet skin to get cold.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

While extremely frigid above the ice, the water hovered somewhere not far above freezing. Thirty-eight-degree water may sound cold, but it was nearly 60 degrees warmer than the air. Divers wore special dry suits.

"It was definitely colder when you got out of the water," Harris said.

"They get chilled, but not to the point where they get hypothermia," Lewis said. "The biggest problem is right at the surface level, trying to get underwater without their regulators freezing up."

Harris said they had to dive under the water before breathing through the scuba mouthpiece or it could ice up and lock open. If the tanks had been sitting out in the cold long, the air they contain could become just as cold, potentially causing frost bite of the mouth, throat and lungs.

Once underwater, they practiced search patterns.

"With ice rescue, you have the convenience of knowing where they went in, so we go down the same hole and do a circular search pattern," Harris said.

They only stay under for 10 minutes at a time, and then are replaced.

"It's really manpower extensive to put a man under the ice," Harris said.

Each diving pair -- a rescue diver and a safety diver -- has a person on the surface who is their tender and communicates with them by tugs on the tether line.

While certified for under-ice rescue and recovery, the divers won't dive under Cook Inlet pack ice.

"Nobody dives under that. There's zero visibility in the upper inlet here, and it moves so fast all the time," Lewis said. "You wouldn't find somebody anyway."

Still, the training was valuable.

"It was an excellent class," Harris said. "Diving is not our primary function in the fire department, but it's another tool we have."

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