As I shoveled snow the other day in the -2 degree arctic blast hitting a lot of the country right now, this weather got me thinking about the time I was part of an ice rescue involving a dog. Here in southwest Missouri, we don’t get a lot of iced-over waterways. It might happen once or twice a year—no slike now, for example—or we might go a few years without having any hard freezes that last long enough to freeze the lakes, creeks, and rivers.
One year, when we did have such weather, I was on duty at our primary water rescue team fire station on a particularly brutal winter day. That particular station always has members of the water rescue team on duty ready to deploy for any kind of water rescue emergency. I am currently on the water rescue team, and was on it that day, as well. It was probably 2014 or so.
On a frigid winter day, we do not expect to get much water rescue action, for obvious reasons. Nor do we usually get a lot of ice rescues, which also fall under the water rescue team’s purview. That is mainly because people here do not really trust the ice (smart!), and we do not have the tradition of going out to ice skate and play ice hockey when things freeze, because, again, it’s just not something we do here that often. People tend to generally respect the ice, in other words.
So, imagine our surprise when the three of us on duty that day at the fire station — a captain and two firefighters, all on the water rescue team — received tones calling us out for a water rescue at one of the nearby lakes. That in itself was outside the norm. Then we heard the additional comments: a truck driver on the highway had seen a dog struggling in a hole in the ice under the bridge that travels over the lake. That was it, the extent of the call comments. Well, shit.
We immediately headed to the water rescue truck and started collectively figuring out just what the hell we were going to do. None of us had ever done an actual ice rescue, and our department had never rescued an animal from the ice. Still, how hard could it be, we asked ourselves. We’d just stick to our training, and somehow make it work.
When we arrived in the area, we figured the closest spot to access the dog would be from the area it had been spotted by the truck driver, which was on the side of the highway. That ended up being a smart move on the part of our captain (who is now my battalion chief), since it proved to be the quickest way down a snowy embankment to reach the struggling pup. Had we gone the usual route to access the lake shore, we’d have taken at least an additional 5-7 minutes. Those were minutes the dog probably did not have.
As we jumped from the truck and gathered our gear, we were met by a police officer who was in the area and had arrived on scene, as well as an animal control officer, who luckily also happened to be close by. We were also met by a second dog. What the hell was this?
Now, imagine my confusion as this dog comes running toward me as I scamper down a snowy embankment. Was this the dog that had been in the water? Was he about to bite me? My questions were quickly answered by the police officer who stated this was a second dog that was running around with the one in the water. The dog on land was quite literally corralling us down toward her buddy. She barked and yelped and ran in circles, and took off like a shot toward the ice when she saw us head down toward the bank.
As we arrived on the bank, we could see the dog in the ice hole. He was struggling to keep his two front paws on the ice shelf, and continued to slide off into the water, only to make an effort again to climb out with the two paws. Not only was it not working, but it was exhausting him. He looked haggard and spent, and howled as though in pain and distress. His dog buddy, meanwhile, ran circles on the ice, around the hole into which the other dog had fallen, barking at us constantly. I am 100 percent certain she was barking out, “Help my friend, please!”
We had to take a minute to figure out how to do this. We have protocols for getting a human being out of the ice hole, but they generally involve the assumption that our victim is not going to be four-legged and unresponsive to our commands. While the other firefighter and I secured ourselves with tethers attached to our dry suits (why we did not grab the ice suits, I will never know), I planned to just go out there, get in the hole with the dog, and push him out. The other firefighter was the back-up rescuer (to rescue me if I needed it), and the captain and police officer would mind our tethers from shore.
I could tell my captain was less than thrilled with this plan of action, and he took a second to slow us down and think through our options. In retrospect, I now understand that this is what a good captain should always do in an out-of-the-ordinary situation that hasn’t been covered by one’s training.
While he decided on a course of action, I noted that the dog was becoming fatigued almost to the point of giving up. I uttered something along the lines of, “what is the plan, because we need to do it,” and headed onto the ice with my tether and a flotation device for the dog. Just before I got on my belly to use my ice awls to pull myself across to the hole (imagine handles with spikes on the end that you bury in the ice and pull yourself along on your stomach), the animal control officer had an idea. She handed me her five-foot snare pole. “Here, use this to grab him.” The captain nodded his go.
You are probably familiar with a snare pole. It is a telescoping pole with a loop on the end that goes around the dog’s head, and then you cinch it down around his neck to form a collar. The pole also allows you to keep the potentially hostile dog at a safe distance once he is snared. “Okay,” I said, and grabbed the pole and headed out. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I would do once I got there, but decided to just decide once I arrived close to the hole. My back-up rescuer also headed onto the ice, using his own ice awls. He stayed about 6 feet behind me, in case I went into the ice on the way.
Now, ideally, when performing an ice rescue, the rescuer avoids getting in the hole if at all possible. Securing the victim and getting them out of the hole is the goal, and if you can do that with the least risk of exposure to the rescuer, then that is ideal. Keep in mind, this was not moving water in the hole, so the dog was not being pulled under the ice shelf by a current, nor would I have been. The main concern was the dog going under once he exhausted all of his reserves of energy and drowning, which appeared imminent.
In the meantime, the animal control officer was able to secure the second dog (I always call her Lassie in my head, because she was so helpful in making sure we were on track to rescue), so thankfully I did not have to worry about Lassie being overly-helpful and mauling me as I attempted to pull her friend out of the hole.
I got within about 3 feet of the hole and decided to use the snare pole first, and thought, ‘hell, I should just use it how it is designed to work.’ I looped the snare section over its head, and tightened it enough to get ahold of the dog. Knowing I was (briefly) choking it, I pulled steadily toward me with just enough force to get the dog’s back legs up on the ice shelf, and out of the water. It took about three seconds, and he was out!
Once he was out of the hole, I could tell the dog was trying to run over to his buddy on the shore and I let the pole go so as not to keep choking him, while hoping he did not somehow go through the ice again. The dog ran right over to the animal control officer, slipping and sliding on the ice, and shivering like mad. The animal control officer secured the snare pole and immediately wrapped the dog in a blanket. Lassie dutifully sniffed her friend and whimpered, clearly relieved. It was actually quite touching to see.
My captain and the police officer, meanwhile, pulled me and my fellow firefighter back to shore, using the tethers. We got off the ice (damn, was it cold), exchanged some fist bumps and “good jobs” with everyone on scene, and then headed back to the truck to go back to the station for some hot coffee. While we headed back, none of us talked much as we tried to re-warm, and just process it all. “Well, that was different,” my captain finally said. That about covered it.
I never did find out if the animal control officer located the dogs’ owners, but I like to assume she did. I imagine Lassie and her buddy are old and gray now, sleeping by a warm fire, saying “hell no” to heading out in this cold and ice. I can’t fault them there. Staying in and staying warm sounds like a good plan.
Feature photo courtesy of Duxbury Fire Department out of Duxbury, MA. Make sure to check them out on Twitter.