By Ron VandenBoom
Firefighter Tim Hedges cautiously rolls across the frozen surface of Fresno Reservoir and as gently as possible, slips into the dark and frozen water.
Has he lost his mind or is he just getting into the swim of things?
Actually, Hedges is not alone in his mid-afternoon plunge. Other Havre firefighters are also taking their turn introducing themselves to the frigid water of Fresno.
They are doing so with the hope that they will never have to duplicate this experience in a real life or death emergency. But just in case, Hedges and several of his cohorts from the Havre Fire Department are undergoing training that if needed could save the life of someone that has fallen through the ice.
"It's good practice," Hedges said. "The main thing, is you want to make sure you get the belt securely around them (the victim) so you can pull them out."
Two-man teams entered the water at Fresno Thursday to practice rescue techniques and familiarize themselves with what rescuers and victims alike might experience when dealing with the ice and fringed temperatures common in northern Montana.
Fortunately, there was no fear of hypothermia to the rescuers thanks to a donation from the Fresno Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited and the $1,200 the club donated toward the purchase of two heavily insulated and water proof dry suits for the Havre Fire Department.
Firefighters, working in pairs, will when necessary enter the water only when wearing the highly buoyant neoprene suits. There will be no fear of the cold or drowning to limit there rescue efforts.
The rescuers will also be hooked up to ropes manned by fellow firefighters ready to pull them to safety as soon as they have the victim securely attached to the harness.
Only two drawbacks are noted by firefighters during the exercise. The first was the loss of some dexterity do to the thick gloves and the other was a tendency, caused by the suits buoyancy, for the rescuer to float horizontally.
But to the firefighters, it's all just part of the learning curve.
"It's good to see how efficiently you can get the suit on and all the little details of the suit," Hedges said. "It's good experience to get a feeling of how you body operates in the water."
Mike Badgely, a spokesman for Fresno Chapter said donating funds toward worthy community projects is what the club is all about.
Badgely said the only criteria the club has is that their donations mush have something to do with the water.
"And we have a lot of ice fishermen," Badgley said. "And at any time someone could actually fall through the ice."
Most of the Fresno Chapter projects have been summer oriented and have included the building of boat docks, lighting projects, wave whackers, and bathrooms on the lake.
This was an opportunity for the local club to do something related to winter, Badgley said.
Assistant Fire Chief Dave Sheppard, approached the Walleyes club last year with a request for the suits after the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks came to Havre and provided a demonstration of ice water rescue. Havre firefighters were given a chance to try the suits at that time.
"Up to now the closest suits available to us have been in Fort Benton," Sheppard said.
Badgley made a video tape of the exercise that will be shown at the State Walleyes Unlimited Convention slated for the first weekend in February at the Havre Holiday Village Shopping Center.