ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- When it comes to water-related rescue calls – whether it is in open water or on a frozen lake – the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for responding to the region's needs.

Because of this, it is not only members of the Douglas County Water Rescue and Recovery Team who participate in training exercises, but also road deputies.

And recently, five new road deputies, along with a couple new members of the dive team, got the chance to practice their skills for thin ice rescues.

The training was led by Sgt. Greg Windhurst, team leader, and Art Vinson, assistant team leader, from the Douglas County Water Rescue and Recovery Team. The instructor was Kevin Smith, who is also a member of the dive team and dispatcher. Another road deputy, who is a member of the dive team, played the role of the victim.

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Part of the training included using Mustang survival suits, which are specifically for thin ice rescues because of their buoyancy.

Windhurst said the best way to get used to this type of suit is by putting them on and getting in the water. For road deputies, this is especially important as unlike dive team members, they are not as familiar with being in the water.

Besides their floatation abilities, the Mustang suits are designed to be put over clothing for quick response and will keep those using them warm and dry.

Nate Larson (left) and Alex Herzberg, deputies with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office recently trained for thin ice rescue using a rescue sled. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)
Nate Larson (left) and Alex Herzberg, deputies with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office recently trained for thin ice rescue using a rescue sled. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)

Trainees also learned the art of self-rescue using ice picks, which are packed in the sleeves of the survival suit.

Anyone venturing out on the ice during the winter should always bring ice picks with them, or even long, spike-like nails, which work in the same manner. If someone falls into the water, using some sort of ice pick works well for gripping and pulling themselves out of the water, Windhurst said.

Windhurst and Vinson shared some other tips when venturing out on the ice during winter, including always checking the ice conditions, wearing a life jacket, having ice picks on your person and never going out on the ice alone, or if you do, always letting someone know your location.

In addition, they said to always pay attention to the environment as that can have an impact on the ice conditions.

For instance, Vinson said pay attention if there are springs in the lake as they tend to make the ice weaker.

During their training, deputies also used a rescue noodle, which is similar to a pool or lake noodle used by kids, along with a rope bag. A small bag, with a rope tucked inside, is tossed to the person who fell through the ice and can be used to pull the person to safety.

Another thin ice rescue tool used by law enforcement personnel is an ice rescue sled. The sleds are most often used if a person is further out in the water.

One last tool that deputies learned about was the sheriff’s office airboat. Airboats have flat bottoms and can maneuver through pretty much anything. It can easily go from land to an open water area to an ice-covered lake with no problem.

Nicole Mahalla (left) and Alex Herzberg from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office get a ride in the airboat during a training on thin ice rescue on North Union Lake. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)
Nicole Mahalla (left) and Alex Herzberg from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office get a ride in the airboat during a training on thin ice rescue on North Union Lake. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)

Windhurst said it all depends on the conditions and the situation as to what method will be used for thin ice rescues, but that the training is invaluable and helps to prepare rescuers for a variety of situations.

As with any rescue type situation, he said, time is of the essence. Emergency response to water-related emergencies can occur anytime and in all weather conditions, which is why training is crucial.