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Colorado Springs firefighters practice ice diving to give drowning victims 'a chance'

January 11, 2018 Updated: January 11, 2018 at 6:38 pm
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photo - Colorado Springs Fire Department and the Heavy Rescue Technicians prepare their divers before they practices their ice dive training at Gold Camp Reservoir on Thursday January 11, 2018 in Colorado Springs. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)
Colorado Springs Fire Department and the Heavy Rescue Technicians prepare their divers before they practices their ice dive training at Gold Camp Reservoir on Thursday January 11, 2018 in Colorado Springs. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette) 

Thursday's relatively balmy weather belied the extreme conditions one might expect during firefighter ice diving training.

Heavy Rescue crews, for example, were able to break through the ice in places and entry was from the shore rather than through a carved hole in the middle of the body of water.

At 39 degrees, though, the water was the same: "Cold," Colorado Springs Fire Capt. Bill Hull said, still dripping after a practice dive with a novice crew member.

But thinning ice in the middle of January is exactly why the Colorado Springs Fire Department warns residents to always stay off the ice. Temperatures in the area are unpredictable, making seemingly frozen ponds, lakes and reservoirs deceiving and unreliable.

"The ice around here might be thick, but because of the tremendous sunlight we get, it fractures the ice," Hull said. "It's like poured concrete. When you pour concrete it might be real thick but it's still going to crumble under your weight. It's the same thing with the ice - you can't tell by just the thickness."

It's also why the team trains: People rarely follow the rules.

Curt Crumb, left, gets his dive watch for Zach Blair, right, before his dive as the Colorado Springs Fire Department and the Heavy Rescue Technicians practice ice dive training at Gold Camp Reservoir on Thursday January 11, 2018 in Colorado Springs. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette) 

Though the 24-member team travels across the Pikes Peak Region, in Colorado Springs they're most often called to Prospect Lake for reports of people walking on the ice or falling through, dive lead Lt. Dave Barron said. Fortunately, on those calls, crews are usually able to pluck people from the water without diving in, he said.

For those four or five times a year when the dive team is needed for underwater searches, the job can be grim - rescues can quickly turn into recoveries. But the job is also pretty cool (if you're not claustrophobic), crew members admit.

Captain Bill Hull, program manager with the Heavy Rescue, waves from the hole that was cut in the ice for training purposes as he practices ice dive training at Gold Camp Reservoir on Thursday January 11, 2018 in Colorado Springs. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette) 

For no extra pay beyond their regular firefighting salary, dive team members strap on 80 pounds of equipment and search for discarded weapons or drowning persons in waters at times so murky it's difficult to see your hand in front of you, they said.

But that's the challenge six-year diver Lt. Don Vanderlinden said he signed up for.

"It's one of the most dangerous things you can do," Vanderlinden said of ice diving, which is frequently likened to swimming in a closed-lid jar. "There is small room for error."

Dangerous but rewarding, Hull countered, recalling some of the people he's helped pull from the water within "the golden window," the one-hour period in which survivability is most likely.

"They didn't make it, but at least they had a chance," Hull said.

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Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin

Facebook: Kaitlin Durbin

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