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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Nashua dive team sharpens ice rescue skills during training at Pennichuck pond

It’s an odd experience, crawling like a spider across the underside of ice on a frozen pond, an opaque ceiling above, the dark below, and silence surrounding you.

“It’s very peaceful, seeing the air bubbles coming up around you. It’s quite beautiful,” said firefighter Julian Reed, a private with Nashua Fire Rescue and a member of its dive rescue team. “It’s a strange dichotomy. It’s peaceful, but it’s stressful, because you’re doing a rescue.” ...

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It’s an odd experience, crawling like a spider across the underside of ice on a frozen pond, an opaque ceiling above, the dark below, and silence surrounding you.

“It’s very peaceful, seeing the air bubbles coming up around you. It’s quite beautiful,” said firefighter Julian Reed, a private with Nashua Fire Rescue and a member of its dive rescue team. “It’s a strange dichotomy. It’s peaceful, but it’s stressful, because you’re doing a rescue.”

Peaceful, stressful and very cold if, like Reed, your glove detaches from your thermal suit. Emerging from a pond at Pennichuck Water Works on Wednesday morning, Reed shook the numbness from his hand in the bright sunshine and warm – 30-plus degree – air.

To peaceful, stressful and cold, another adjective could be attached to Reed’s drive: successful.

Reed followed proper safety procedures and located a fist-size metal fastener called a carabiner, which had been dropped into the black silt beneath the ice.

He thus earned recertification as a rescue scuba diver, one of nine firefighters, plus one Nashua police officer, undergoing the ice-diving training exercises this week.

At half-a-foot thick, the pond ice easily supported the weight of an adult to walk across. But for training purposes, dive team members assumed the ice was an inch thick – which meant team members had to crawl out to a triangular hole cut into the ice and secure a pulley system to pull the diver out on a sled.

Once in the water, the diver swept across the bottom of the ice like the movement of a windshield wiper to find the second hole – the one in which a “victim” had fallen through and sunk beneath the surface.

Once at the hole, the diver submerged to locate a carabiner, which stood in for a 10-year-old child in this training scenario.

“If they can find the carabiner, finding a 10-year-old is like finding a truck,” said Walt “Butch” Hendrick, of Lifeguard Systems, a New York-based company that offers training and equipment and certifies dive-team members.

It’s no accident the training scenario involves a child, not an adult, Hendrick said.

“To us, it’s all about children,” Hendrick said.

A rescue involving a child “reaches into the heart of every member of the fire department,” he said.

Hendrick, a Navy veteran, devised the methodology used for water rescues and has taught courses around the globe. He’s also astute at generating publicity: Hendrick has appeared on television shows and once had CNN’s Anderson Cooper suited up in a wetsuit to demonstrate an ice rescue.

Hendrick has worked with Nashua Fire Rescue for years – the dive team is recertified every two years. Hendrick said Nashua’s department is rare among municipal departments with which he has worked in that it maintains a dive team 40 members strong, and all firefighters are trained as support personnel.

“These guys are extremely dedicated to water rescue,” Hendrick said. “From the chief on down, they’re extremely supportive of doing it right. This department is about keeping their people safe and taking care of the general public.”

The department went through four days of training this week, beginning midmorning and continuing well into the afternoon, fire Lt. Dave Sassak said.

In a real ice rescue, divers try to enter the water where the victim submerged, Sassak said. But in the training scenario, divers couldn’t reach that hole and had to enter the ice at a different location, he said.

Out of his gear and warm at last, Reed said he hasn’t participated in an actual ice rescue during his three years on the dive team – and that’s fine by him.

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or pmeighan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Meighan on Twitter (@Telegraph_PatM).