Of Ice and Men

Chief Petty Officer Jesse Green, a machinery technician with Coast Guard Sector Detroit's Ready for Operations Team, fills the role of a victim as members of the Kotzebue Fire Department take turns rescuing him from Devil's Lake near Kotzebue, Alaska, April 18, 2014. Green's role at Sector Detroit includes ensuring that Coast Guard ice rescue teams are prepared to perform their missions. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Chief Petty Officer Jesse Green, a machinery technician with Coast Guard Sector Detroit’s Ready for Operations Team, fills the role of a victim as members of the Kotzebue Fire Department take turns rescuing him from Devil’s Lake near Kotzebue, Alaska, April 18, 2014. Green’s role at Sector Detroit includes ensuring that Coast Guard ice rescue teams are prepared to perform their missions. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst.

The Robert Burns quote, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” has never held more true than it does on a body of frozen water.

All it takes is one foul step, one patch of too-thin ice, to turn a good day into a bad one. For all the recreation and subsistence to be had on the ice, there is constant inherent danger of being suddenly submerged in freezing water.

Fortunately, there exists a special group of people who dedicate their lives to rescuing others from predicaments of that sort. When best-laid plans do go awry, they are standing by to lend a hand. For those operating on the Great Lakes, that group is the Coast Guard’s ice rescue specialists, personnel at small boat stations trained to respond to ice-related missions.

Located just south of where the Saginaw River empties into Lake Huron, Coast Guard Station Saginaw River is home to the service’s ice rescue experts: the men and women of the Coast Guard’s National Ice Rescue School. The school, part of the Ice Capabilities Center for Excellence, is a testing ground for the latest ice rescue tools and techniques. The mission to protect life at sea doesn’t end just because the water is solid.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Joe Whallon, a boatswain's mate with Coast Guard Sector Anchorage's Ready for Operations Team, prepares to be rescued by a member of the Kotzebue Fire Department during ice rescue training on Devil's Lake near Kotzebue, Alaska, April 18, 2014. Coast Guard personnel provided training on ice rescue tools, while gaining ice-related knowledge from the Arctic residents in Kotzebue, Barrow and Nome. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Joe Whallon, a boatswain’s mate with Coast Guard Sector Anchorage’s Ready for Operations Team, prepares to be rescued by a member of the Kotzebue Fire Department during ice rescue training on Devil’s Lake near Kotzebue, Alaska, April 18, 2014. Coast Guard personnel provided training on ice rescue tools, while gaining ice-related knowledge from the Arctic residents in Kotzebue, Barrow and Nome. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Thousands of miles away on Alaska’s frigid Arctic coast, residents of the many maritime communities, some newcomers and some descendants of the Alaska Native tribes, work and thrive in an environment where ice is a major part of life for most of the year. Arctic locals live, work and play on the ice, and knowledge of its properties and effective survival techniques are an essential part of life.These two communities, Great Lakes and Last Frontier, have a lot in common despite their distance from one another. This similarity triggered a partnership in 2012, one that resumed as part of Arctic Shield 2014 this April.

“We’re introducing them to the Coast Guard’s techniques of ice rescue,” said Chief Petty Officer Jesse Green, a machinery technician with Coast Guard Sector Detroit’s Ready for Operations team.  “We’re also learning what they do and seeing the techniques that they’re using.”

Green, along with others from the 9th and 17th districts, visited Barrow, Nome and Kotzebue with Coast Guard ice rescue equipment to participate in scheduled joint training with the local search and rescue crews. They brought the latest tools approved for use in Great Lakes ice rescue and shared them with the Alaska residents to get feedback on their effectiveness in the extreme environment.

“We’re all in the same business of saving lives,“ said Petty Officer 1st Class Justin Abold, the lead ice rescue instructor at the National Ice Rescue School. “Whatever they can teach us, whatever we can teach them, it just means more lives are being saved.”

Part of the Coast Guard’s training session was sharing the effective use of an ice rescue sled used by Coast Guard personnel on the Great Lakes. After the lesson, the Kotzebue Fire Department team had one more means of rescuing someone off the ice that surrounds the city for a large portion of the year.

“We really can’t tell these communities in Northern Alaska anything about survival in the cold that they don’t already know,” said Mike Hudson, the 9th District Ice Rescue Program manager. “But we do come and provide instruction on the techniques we use and the equipment that we use.”

The trip also gave the Coast Guard a chance to develop ideas for new equipment and seek the valuable input of the Arctic maritime community. In particular, the visitors from the 9th District left with a plan for a lightweight survival bag to add to their ice rescue kits.

“No doubt about it,” Hudson added. “We go away enlightened by the experience of these SAR professionals up here.”

The best laid plans may often go awry, but a dedication to preparedness through partnerships and testing our abilities go a long way when it comes time to respond to a worst case scenario.