Pittsfield Fire Department drills for ice rescues on Pontoosuc Lake


PITTSFIELD -- You're walking along the shore of an ice-covered Pontoosuc Lake in January, and -- suddenly -- you hear a scream for help.

Someone has fallen through the ice.

Immediately, you or someone else should call 911, according to city firefighters. Next, if you can, safely reach out to the victim -- if you're close enough -- with a long branch, a rope or other item and try to pull the person ashore.

But do not attempt a rescue by going onto the ice yourself, urged Capt. Ronald Mazzeo of the Pittsfield Fire Department.

"Oftentimes, the rescuer becomes the victim," Mazzeo said. "Human nature is you want to help, but the best thing to do is call to get trained professionals on the way."

Mazzeo's safety tips come as more people start to venture out onto seemingly frozen bodies of water in the Berkshires to ice fish, ride a snowmobile or enjoy a recreational game of hockey.

Pittsfield Deputy Fire Chief Keith Phillips said ice depth is often uneven -- no guarantee that it's safe from one step to another.

"There are so many variables involving the thickness of ice: Weather, the lake itself, depth of water," he said.

A minimum of two inches -- four inches is best -- of clear, solid ice is best to support a 200-pound person. Four inches is recommended for ice fishing and 12 inches for one vehicle, city firefighters said.

While a recent cold snap produced the first frozen waterways of the winter, the January thaw forecasted through this weekend has Phillips concerned that some people may be walking on thinner ice.

"I would rather have lakes frozen solid all winter long," Phillips said.

Nevertheless, city firefighters are prepared for an icy water rescue. This week and next, the 93-member fire department is brushing up on its rescue skills in the classroom and on Pontoosuc Lake, according to Mazzeo.

"Firefighters take turns being either the victim or a rescuer," he said. "We try to make it as realistic as possible."

In addition to training, city firefighters have the readily available equipment necessary to retrieve someone from icy water. The equipment includes a rescue sled, 900 feet of line on a spool and at least two water rescue suits at each city fire station.

Mazzeo hopes common sense will prevail versus putting the department's training and equipment to actual use.

"Bottom line: Use good judgment on the ice and use care for yourself and your loved ones," he said.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
or (413) 496-6233.

On thin ice ...

The Pittsfield Fire Department has several safety tips to keep in mind when venturing out onto seemingly frozen, ponds, lakes and rivers:

• Walk with a friend, but not together.

• Stay away from ice near open water, rocks, trees, and vegetation where it's usually the thinnest.

• Wear a warm hat, gloves and foot gear.

• If you fall through the ice, stay calm and don't swim; try to get out by spreading your arms onto the ice. Kick hard with both feet to propel yourself onto hard ice and then roll away from the hole.

• If you see someone falling through the ice, call 911 and then try to reach the victim with a branch, rope or pole. Don't attempt a rescue by going onto the ice; leave that to the trained rescuers.


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