Practising a rare rescue is the ice on their cake

|     Steve Hendrix     |

WASHINGTON ( The Washington Post) – This is what Capt Mike Devine had been waiting for: The coldest stretch of winter in years, a thick coat of ice on the Potomac and the chance to throw some of his fellow firefighters – and one reporter – into the water.

Devine stood on the glistening, glacial surface of the river near the Pentagon’s parking lot Saturday morning. The bright air was 10 degrees above zero, the black water was about a half-degree above freezing, one of his men was flailing about in a chain-sawed hole in the ice and all was right with the world.

“This is great,” Devine said, rubbing his neoprene gloves together, his Gore-Tex dry suit glazed with ice after his own repeated polar plunges. “This makes us 100 per cent ready for anything.”

Devine is the head of the Arlington County Fire Department’s young water rescue team in Virginia. The squad, which began training four years ago and became operational in 2016, joins a consortium of regional water crews, including veteran units in Fairfax (Virginia) and Montgomery (Maryland) counties.

The Arlington team routinely practises pulling swimmers from the white water below Great Falls, Virginia, and drivers from submerged vehicles, all the worst-case role-play from rivers, lakes and floods. The piece that has been missing for most of the team’s 52 men and women has been ice rescue, a scenario officials in this region of iffy winters refer to as a “low-frequency, high-risk” emergency.

Already during this cold snap, other rescue teams have responded to ice calls in the area, including a group of young people who drove their SUV onto – and then into – a Loudoun County pond and a man who was in critical condition after being pulled Friday from a Frederick County pond.

“We don’t see ice very often, but when we get it and someone goes through, it’s extremely dangerous for both the victim and the rescuer,” said Capt Ken Bonicky, one of the founding leaders of the team. “This is just what we’ve needed to get more of our folks ready for the real thing.”

Some team members got ice experience in 2015, when the river got enough of a coating for rescuers to venture out. A few of them promptly fell through – a little unplanned realism.

The water rescue team warms up inside the Arlington County Fire Department’s mass-casualty bus Saturday after the exercise
Jake Daniel (2nd R) and Josh Wise (R) dig in to pull would-be victims from the ice of the Potomac River near the Columbia Island Marina. – PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Mike Kriskovich extricates Matt Jackson from the ice Saturday during the Arlington County Fire Department’s training session on the Potomac River

“That definitely gets everybody on high alert,” said Bonicky, who was one of the ones who got dunked. “Instead of walking out, there’s going out on all fours like cats.”

But this! The shockingly cold start to 2018 had produced a sheet of ice a firefighter could depend on. Jump on even, although the professionals were too professional for that. (The journalist, not so much). It was six inches thick and more than strong enough for four or five of them to stand confidently around the edge of the little triangular lagoon they had cut Friday morning. It refroze overnight, and they’d had to open it anew.

The exercise began back at Station 5, where the team members, all of whom had to pass swimming and endurance tests to qualify, helped each other with gear. The high-tech dry suits, all fail-safe zippers and rubber cuffs, can take two people to wrangle into place.

“Make sure this one is tight,” Devine said, pointing to the big lateral zipper at crotch level. “If you’ve got a leak there, you’ll know it instantly.”

Waddling to and fro is tough enough; these folks have to be able to swim through white water in them. And it doesn’t take a freezing day to require the full rig. Prolonged exposure to water below 75 degrees is a hypothermia risk, and the dry suits come out in September, or whenever hazardous materials might taint the water.

The team lumbered aboard a mass-casualty bus for the quick drive to the river. Bonicky was waiting at the side of the hole. He had spent the previous morning there as his fellow rescuers took turns playing hapless victim and determined hero. Now it was Devine’s turn to go back in. He struggled to get a nylon rope – now stiff as a tree branch – just so around the bobbing trunk of firefighter Jay Lin as they treaded water in conditions that would mean hypothermia in minutes if not for their gear.

Nothing in the classroom lecture or the poolside drills had been as difficult as this. And both knew that a real victim – fighting mad with panic or, worse, unconscious and sinking – would make it even harder.

This was a placid backwater of the Potomac River, the Pentagon Lagoon, with the boats of the Columbia Island Marina all locked in the icy armour of the polar vortex. But even here, the river current tugged the two swimmers against the side of the cut. Farther out, the river proper was too dangerous for training, even with all the safeguards. No one wanted to imagine being pulled under that slick and implacable ceiling of ice.

“Even tethered up trying to fight the current, we would lose,” Bonicky said. A chilling reality, indeed.

Finally, Devine patted the top of his yellow helmet. Two team members on the bank began hauling on the lines attached to the sling he had gotten under Lin’s arms. “Kick your feet! Kick your feet!” Devine shouted at Lin, just as he would a real victim.

Lin kicked, sending sparkling droplets into the air. The rescuers pulled and Devine, his arms around the designated victim, steered them over the edge. In a training pool, they use yoga mats to ease the friction. Here, they glided smoothly out of the water like a couple of Day-Glo walruses.

“Ladies and gentleman, Jay Lin,” the team called from the shore, with muffled applause for his aplomb as a drowning man.

Didn’t look that hard, actually.

“You ready to try it?” Devine asked.

And so this reporter found himself hooked up, buttoned down, tethered to some reliable, iron-jawed first responders and climbing gingerly into a Potomac that was – according to the monitors at the Little Falls Pump Station – just .04 of a degree on the wet side of frozen.

Let the record show that Arlington Water Rescue got an actual helpless victim to practise with Saturday. It wasn’t that cold, thanks to the outer wear, but still shocking. Especially as the current seemed to subtly pull from below the ice.

Firefighter Pete Slattery plucked me twice from the peril, which didn’t feel so pretend after a few minutes. The first time, scooching toward the water on a foam sled, he hooked his arms around my trunk and the shore crew pulled on his harness line, pulling him back and me out. If the ice were thinner or needed more people, they would manoeuvre out on one of their inflatable rafts.

I went back in, and Slattery followed, both of us bobbing in the spalike water of “bomb cyclone” season. He slowly lassoed me with the sling that was thickly coated with ice from previous rescues. He talked to me calmly, as he would a real victim. (Or maybe because I looked I needed calming.) And then, whoosh, the team hauled us to safety.

“How was that?” they all asked as we dripped and thawed over coffee amid the stretchers of the bus.

That was cool. Very, very cool.