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May 11, 2021

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Missoula firefighters have to be “ready for anything” with ice rescues
Posted On: Feb 09, 2018

MISSOULA - Plunging into the frigid waters of the Clark Fork every winter is just part of the job for Missoula firefighters, who are just wrapping up their month-long training for ice rescues.

And with varying weather like we’ve had this winter, it’s always an assignment of unknowns.

“Being on the river it’s a dynamic situation based on weather conditions. It’s different every time," said Missoula Fire Department Captain Dean Johnson. "We might have a solid sheet of ice. We might have open leads. We might have entirely open water. So depending what we’re dealing with, that can affect how we go about the rescue and what sort of equipment we use and how we access that mission. And that’s one of the reasons its good to get down here on the river so we are familiar with the current conditions.”

The firefighters practice with a variety of tools so they’re ready for just about anything. They ranges from tossing a rope to a single firefighter crossing the ice, to launching the department’s small pontoon boat to provide a rescue platform to get a victim back to shore.

“You can have solid, stable ice and we can get a little warming trend and now you’re dealing with a lot of rotting ice," Johnson said. "And what was safe and looked fine two days ago is extremely dangerous.”

And that’s where you can do your part. If you like to run or walk along the river trails, stay off the ice yourself and keep a safe distance away, and keep your dogs off the ice.

“And it’s quite common that it’s the dog that gets into trouble, and the pet owner tries to rescue that dog, maybe some bystanders get involved and now we have a human rescue. So, yeah, keep your pets off the ice. Keep your pets safe. Keep yourself safe.”

Johnson and the others are used to the sympathetic look they get from bystanders who can’t imagine going “swimming” this time of the year. Managing and preparing for risk, no matter what the temperature, is all part of the job of being a firefighters.

“It’s just always different. No two days are ever the same. And there again, that has to do with that dynamic situation, the changing conditions. And you need to be able to think on your feet and hopefully put into play what you’ve previously practiced. And that’s why we do this.”

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