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On thin ice: Madison Fire Dept. cautions venturing onto frozen lakes

Crews perform practice rescues with new equipment

MADISON, Wis. - On thin ice: Madison Fire Dept. cautions venturing onto frozen lakes

It's an ice fisherman's holiday wish -- an early cold snap and frozen lakes.

"This year has been early. It's usually around mid-December, it starts freezing up," Brandon Smith said before heading out onto Brittingham Bay.

Smith admitted he's a bit of a daredevil, and because he hasn't fallen through the ice yet, he's more willing to venture out on the ice before others.

"It's only now getting to where you can really wander around safely," Smith said.

Madison Fire Chief Ernesto Martinez said his crews get at least three or four calls for people falling through the ice every winter. Most of those come at the very beginning and end of the season, Martinez said. However, ice is so inconsistent that it is hard to tell where it is safe and when.

"It's not like you can tell from November to December it's this way, and in January and February it's this way," Martinez said. "All bets are off."

That means Martinez and his first responders have to be ready with rescue gear for any water emergency, whether the surface is frozen or melted.

The Madison Fire Department got a new piece of equipment to help rescuers recover anyone who falls through the ice. An airboat, owned by the Dane County Sheriff's Office, was handed over to the department to keep and deploy whenever it is needed. Rescuers trained on Lake Monona on Tuesday, practicing recoveries in the vehicle that can maneuver on ice and water.

"We have these various tools," Martinez said. "We just have to determine which is the one that will work the best in that particular condition."

Martinez said often reports of people who fall through the ice only give a vague location of the victim, making it difficult to locate that person quickly.

"Our biggest concern is we're not going to get there in time, and then it becomes a body recovery," Martinez said.

Martinez stressed that the person in the freezing cold water is not the only one in danger on rescues.

"It's hazardous for us as well as whoever goes through. So it's not just about you. It's about the people who you expect to come out to rescue you," Martinez said.

Martinez said to stay safe out on the ice, people should bring ice picks and a floatation device. He suggested never going out on a body of water alone, especially if you're going near open water.

Martinez said it helps to be familiar with the area you are venturing out onto. He said he typically waits until ice is 4 inches thick before going out skating or ice fishing.

"I tell my kids, don't go out on the ice until you see at least four heavy-set ice fisherman walking close together, so you know that the path that they took is safe for you," Martinez said.

If you do fall into the water, Martinez said people usually go into an instant state of shock. He advised getting into a horizontal position as soon as possible while attempting to kick and crawl out of the water. If that doesn't work, Martinez suggested getting your arms onto the ice so your coat or any outer layer of clothing can freeze onto the ice's surface and keep you up above the water.

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