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Conservation officers conduct ice dive training

TERRE HAUTE After reaching the bottom, about 10 feet down, Indiana Conservation Officer Matt Landis began making sweeps in a circle search pattern as part of his training for his first ice dive Thursday in Fowler Park in southern Vigo County.

The water temperature was 39 degrees, according to a small monitor attached to his special orange-colored dry suit, designed to keep cold water from touching his body.

After about 10 minutes, his training dive was over, but he still faced a unique challenge from the depths — finding a hole cut out of the 41⁄2-inch-thick ice above him.

“You could actually see a couple of feet, which makes it a little easier to orientate yourself once you get down to the bottom. Coming up, you can see the sunlight and it just looks like a roof of glass,” Landis said of the frozen lake above him.

“You think you are coming up in the hole, but once you start coming up, you bump against the ice and you know you are still under,” he said.

That’s where the safety line comes in, which directs the diver back to the opening in the ice. Such conditions require the use of a harness on each diver, said Conservation Officer Max Winchell, a dive master, who said the training helps officers experience the cold and learn to take extra precautions with equipment.

“There are a lot of people out using the lakes and the river in the wintertime, so the potential [for a rescue] is always there,” Winchell said, adding that people ice-fishing or hunting fowl or in some conditions, snowmobilers, can fall through ice and into a lake or pond or even river.

“It pays to be prepared for this, because a lot of things can go wrong when diving in the ice. Equipment malfunctions is one of the biggest things and that is why we dive monthly to make sure everything is working good,” Winchell said.

“You have a lot more room for error when it is cold,” he said.

One safety precaution includes using a shovel to move snow to form a large circle around the ice hole, with several straight lines leading back to the hole. It is supposed to help divers find the hole, if needed. Landis said he could not see the lines because of the sunny conditions.

“I’m told you could see the lines in more cloudy conditions,” said Landis, who has been a conservation officer for two years and started in June as a scuba diver. Eleven Indiana conservation officers participated in ice dive training on the north side of a lake at Fowler Park. The dive is conducted annually.

Nine of the divers were from District 5, which includes Vigo, Vermillion, Parke, Sullivan, Clay, Owen and Putnam counties. Landis and other divers used a communication headset underwater, which was connected to a small box on the surface, allowing others to hear them, even as they breathed, as well as talk to the divers if needed. Divers also trained using hand and touch signals to communicate, Landis said.

Winchell said rescue attempts in cold water do allow rescuers some time. “There are what we call ‘cold water drownings’ and a lot of it depends on the survivability of the person. We have up to an hour and in some cases even 90 minutes in a cold-water drowning situation where a person can be brought back with no ill effects in some cases,” Winchell said.

“In Indiana we can have a cold-water drowning in the summertime,” Winchell said, because the water temperatures might be 75 degrees at the surface, but just 10 feet or more below, temperatures fall drastically, especially in former surface coal mine pits, some as deep as 60 feet.

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