When about 50 fire and rescue personnel from Baltimore and Harford counties gathered for a cold-water rescue training session at a Churchville pond Saturday, the water was just that — cold.
“Some years we have ice there, six inches thick, and we have to use a chainsaw to cut through it,” said Rhonda Hinch, an assistant chief with the Level Volunteer Fire Company.
Hinch said the water is slushy some years and just cold during others — like Saturday, when air temperatures were in the low 30s. For much of last week temperatures reached into the 50s, even 60s some days.
The training, which has been an annual event in Harford County for about 15 years, was hosted by Level. It is an opportunity for members of local fire companies and Harford County Special Operations rescue crews to train together — free of charge — on rescuing people trapped in cold or frozen water.
The training Saturday was on a pond that the Level fire company owns off of Route 155 near the Churchville Recreation Center. The group met at the Level firehouse first for a classroom session and then spent several hours doing hands-on training at the pond.
They returned to the firehouse, on Level Village Road about six-and-a-half miles from Havre de Grace, for lunch. The group included members of Level, the Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Company, the Susquehanna Hose Company in Havre de Grace, the county’s Technical Rescue Team, even the Middle River Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company in Baltimore County.
Some children of fire company members were present, too, wearing child-sized firefighter gear, helmets and life jackets, and even helping where they could in some cases.
Bill Reeder, head of the Susquehanna Hose dive team and swift-water rescue team, was the training instructor. The crews did exercises such as using a ladder or pole to reach a victim in the water and pull them to safety, deploying a rope for the victim to grab, even putting on an environment suit and swimming out to the victim. The teams also used a boat to get to victims further out from shore.
The training helps firefighters learn “different techniques that you can use with the equipment that you have on board the apparatus,” Reeder said.
“Most companies don’t have a boat, but there [usually are] tools that they have in a fire engine, in an ambulance, that they can use,” he added.
Hinch and Reeder discussed situations that can happen in ponds, such as when a dog falls in the water and their owner goes after them, or if motorists swerve to hit a deer and end up there.
Level Capt. Clinton Polk, Hinch’s son and a 12-year veteran of the fire company, has done the cold-water training nearly every year.
Polk called the training “a yearly refresher,” noting that “when seconds count, seconds count” during a rescue operation.
He got in the water Saturday, portraying a victim rescued by his mother using a rope.
Polk wore a bright red environment suit, which he said “keeps you pretty insulated.” He and other people portraying victims were in the water for about five minutes at a time, and EMS personnel were on hand to help get them out of the suit and warmed up.
One of the suits is known as a “Gumby suit,” Polk said. The suits were kept in the firehouse vehicle bay along with other pieces of gear used during the training such as yellow “dry suits,” the red environment suits, helmets, ladders stored in the company’s massive rescue truck, plus ropes.
Some ropes were hanging up to dry, and others were coiled for storage by fire company members.
Polk said the ropes can be fired from a “rope gun.” The user of the rope gun loads the mechanism with compressed air, and then fires the rope from an attached container.
“Shoot it like a regular gun and fire it off across the pond,” he said.
Polk said the ropes can go about 200 feet, depending on how much compressed air is used.
“It’s one of those tools that we don’t use often, but it’s fun to use when we get to use it,” he said.
Polk said the training is valuable because fire company members can test their gear and see if any repairs need to be made, plus it is an opportunity to train with members of neighboring fire companies and rescue units. Polk welcomed the chance to train with Baltimore County firefighters, as he is also a paid career firefighter at Martin State Airport in Middle River.
He said Level personnel respond to locations outside of their primary service area if companies on scene call for mutual aid.
“It works very well, doing the mutual aid training, and doing the training with other companies because you never know where you’re going to be,” he said.