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Ice Rescue Transport Devices, Platforms, and Advanced Tools

Keep it Simple Little Things

By Andrea Zaferes and Walt Hendrick

 Trainers sometimes tell us that it is impossible to expect the short ice rescue operation times of five to fifteen minutes that we expect from our students and our own teams. One of the key pieces to such performance is having the right transport device. The right transport device decreases the amount of time it takes to reach the victim, extricate the victim, and transport the victim to shore and an ambulance.

After working with a variety of sleds, boards, kayaks, ramps, and other ice transport devices with several thousand students on everything from open water, breaking ice, and strong ice, in weather ranging from calm conditions to full-out blizzards, our staff and students alike concluded that the ice rescue board was the most effective ice tool, with the inflatable Class V whitewater kayak coming in second. The advantage of the kayak is that it is usable for rescue all year long. However, it will not travel across the ice nearly as well as an ice board.

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This board in conjunction with the flotation sling, allows the most rapid rescues of any tool we have used. It requires only one rescuer, easily and rapidly transports a victim or rescuer across all conditions from water to strong ice, is barely affected by wind, can safely be used for unconscious to aggressive victims, is not made of metal, has all padded-edges, can be used as a backboard, can transport the victim from the ice to the ambulance, is light weight and easy to carry in a rescue vehicle, does not require set-up time, is very durable, and is one of the least expensive ice transport devices.

Before we list out the important features of a safe and effective ice rescue transport device, it is important to understand the first and most important part of any surface rescue: Establish immediate victim positive buoyancy. Preventing a surface operation from becoming a subsurface operation is critical for both victim survival and rescuer safety. Upon contact with the victim, whether directly or indirectly, establish positive buoyancy.

Some tools like the Rescue Rocket air-powered line gun have a sling that self inflates when it hits water. If a conscious victim can put their head and arms through this sling while surface rescue technicians work to reach that or a different victim, the chances of victim survival can be much higher. This is an excellent tool, but note that it requires practice in the same weather conditions it may have to be deployed in to save a real victim. Do not just purchase one and put it on the truck, rather use it in all water drills to make sure team members are proficient using and re-packing it.

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If one rescuer cannot pick up a transport device and deploy it alone, then think twice about buying it.

Bigger is not necessarily better. In fact, bigger usually means heavier, which means:

bulletmore personal protection equipment is needed for the additional personnel;
bulletit is more likely to break weak ice;
bulletit requires more personnel to move and operate
bulletit takes longer to deploy from the truck to the ice, from the ice to the victim, and back.

Surface Ice Rescue requires light, quick, rapid rescue capabilities. Surface ice rescue needs to be completed on the first attempt.

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Rescue tools that are high on the water and prone to being blown by wind are not usually a good choice, especially if areas of open water need to be crossed. If it cannot be easily transported over open water or slush, it will not be very useful. Remember operations may occur during blizzards.

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If a rescuer cannot easily establish victim positive buoyancy while working on the transport device for support, then think twice about buying it.

Inflatable platforms and walkways are excellent tools when used properly for certain conditions.

They are incredible platforms for muddy or swampy areas, but may not always be the best option for ice rescue. Some aspects to consider before purchasing a ramp:

  1. Two ramps are needed to move across the ice towards a victim. One ramp is picked up and placed in front of the other, like taking steps.
  2. Moving ramps across the ice takes at least two personnel, and can be time consuming and exhausting, as the ramps are relatively heavy and cumbersome.
  3. Ramps are not inexpensive.
  4. Most ramps are not self-bailing, so rescuers must work to keep water out of the ramp and away from the victim, once the victim is inside it.
  5. Ramps must be inflated before use, which may delay a rescue.
  6. They are more wind susceptible than ice boards.

What are the benefits of an inflatable ramp?

  1. They are more stable platforms than most devices
  2. They can be of great aid when spanning open water to ice, and are useful when crossing some moving waterways.
  3. They are excellent for spanning swamps and very muddy areas.
  4. If most of your ice rescues occur less than 50 feet from shore, a 50-foot ramp is an excellent tool.

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If the device cannot be passed off to an aggressive or self-rescue cable victim to allow the victim to climb on the device without assistance, think twice before purchasing it.

If an aggressive victim can easily tip-over the device by simply grabbing it or attempting to climb on it, think twice. A rescuer should be able to control both the device and the victim. For most device designs, the higher the device is off the water the more likely it will tip-over.

 Inflatable, Class V kayaks are effective ice rescue tools, and are very stable for yearlong surface operations and dive operation support tools. They are in the same price range as an ice board.  Hard kayaks are more difficult to use, and can be less gentle to the victim than inflatable kayaks, but they are less than half the price.   Properly rigged flotation backboards can also be used. They do not work nearly as well as boards, kayaks, or some sleds, but they can be purchased and properly rigged for under $200.

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If technicians will strain their backs to place the victim on the device, think twice. Also, carefully think twice about devices that place pressure on the victim’s diaphragm and that result in a loss of airway when a victim becomes unconscious. Can the transport device be used for victims with spine, head, and other injuries?

Avoid devices made of metal. Metal is highly conductive and therefore rapidly steals away precious body heat. Metal is also a hard material. What would you rather accidentally be banged against, metal or a softer material. Make sure all hard edges of a transport device are padded to prevent further victim or rescuer injury, device is made of plastic. Avoid devices with sharp or pointy parts that could accidentally end up in a victim or rescuer. A device of the past is a metal boat. Metal boats take a great deal of energy and time to reach a victim, are unstable, rip heat from everyone touching them, make it difficult to extricate a victim safely from the water, and are a poor choice of surface ice transport device for most conditions.

Other questions to ask are:

bulletCan the device be used as a backboard for patients with possible head, spine, or other injures?
bulletDoes the patient have to be removed from the device to transport the patient from the shoreline to the ambulance?
bulletCan the patient remain secured on the device when extricated from open water to a boat?
bulletIs the device simple to use so that it does not require frequent practice several times a year?
bulletAre there parts or pieces of the device that can be easily lost or broken, rendering it ineffective?
bulletDoes the device have proven durability and longevity?
bulletIs the device cost effective?

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Make sure you try out a piece of equipment under a variety of conditions (hard ice, breaking ice, open water, difficult embankments, few personnel, submerging victim, injured victim, strong winds...) before purchasing it. Try out several different types of devices before making a final decision.

 See the Lifeguard Systems Surface Ice Rescue audiovisual and Surface Ice Rescue & Patient Management book and workbook for more information.  If you have any questions or comments regarding ice rescue transport devices are other ice rescue tools, contact Lifeguard Systems at:




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Copyright 1998 Sortie Publications, Inc.
Last modified: April 08, 2003