by Christy Hart-Harris
Branch County hovercraft can help make ice rescues safer
Sgt. Rick Holtgrave pilots the Branch County Sheriff’s Department’s Neoteric hovercraft.
He and Sheriff John Pollack say that for ice rescue operations, “There is no better equipment. Otherwise, we'd just be pushing boats and ropes and hoping for the best."
Winter is fast approaching and with the cold temperatures come ice and winter sports. Among the more popular winter sports are ice fishing, ice skating and sledding. Those who have grown up on one of the many lakes in Michiana know how much fun all these winter activities can be.
With vast hills along the lakeshores, many kids enjoy sledding down them to the iced-over lake below whiles others prefer to show off their skills with a figure 8 or race their friends on ice skates.
Then there is the most popular winter activity among Michiganders – ice fishing. It is considered by many to be a very relaxing way to spend the day.
Simply walking on the ice can be a unique experience, especially when the snow obscures the view of what lies beneath. Like any activities, safety should be the top priority when on the ice.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources advises those who venture out on the ice this winter to “steer clear of dark spots or places where the snow looks discolored.”
Important rules to follow when on the ice include:
- Never go alone.
- Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.
- Always test the ice with a spud.
- Take the appropriate emergency items, such as a lifejacket and ice picks.
- Take a cell phone in case you need to call for help.
- Dress in your warmest winter clothes.
- Fill a Thermos with hot coffee, chocolate or tea.
Although lake goers may think the danger of drowning is more prevalent during the summer months, drowning is the seventh leading cause of accidental death in the United States, even in the winter.
For this reason, Sgt. Rick Holtgrave of the Branch County Marine Control purchased a hovercraft to assist the Branch County Sheriff’s Department eight-member dive team in rescue missions.
“I purchased this thinking, ‘Okay, we have a tool in the tool box,’” Holtgrave said. “It’s not the only tool, but it is a tool for all of us to utilize in a rescue mission. It’s there if we need it.”
Holtgrave and Branch County Sheriff John Pollack agree that the hovercraft is a vital tool when dealing with iced-over lakes and ice activities in the winter.
The hovercraft has the capability of skimming over thin ice, water, mud and grass. By using this tool, rescuers will be able to save the lives of those who may fall through the ice while preserving the safety of the rescue teams.
With the ability to hold at least 900 pounds, the hovercraft works by pushing air from the engine out of the back of the craft. In return, that air fills each one of the skirts along the base. Maintaining the RPMs and utilizing the reverse thrust keeps the craft operating properly.
“We’re in the process of training,” Pollack said. “We need to train a second operator in case Rick is not available. We need to train officers so they know what to expect from the craft so they know its limitations and what it can do. The fire department is on board with training. They won’t operate it; they just need to know when to call it out and when not to, what it is capable of doing. Rick is the only one currently trained on it.”
The hovercraft is capable of going 60 mph forward and 26 mph backward. Its capability is also critical in residential areas that may become flooded because underwater obstacles such as fences, fallen trees, submerged walls and vehicles cannot affect the craft.
“The biggest thing for us is the ice, particularly thin ice,” Pollack said. “Two problems that we have are human and animal. Whenever we have a rescue on thin ice, our option is to utilize the fire department. They are tethered on a 20-foot rope. Beyond that it’s too far for them to go. It becomes too difficult to rescue the rescuers.”
“All those dangers are what we used to have to face, but now with this hovercraft we can get out there, make the rescue and get right back. It gives the rescuer a secure platform to get the rescue done,” Pollack said. “It will save us on personnel. The fire department will send two or three trucks and it may be a dog that needs to be rescued. Most people are like, oh it’s a dog, no big deal but, if you can imagine if it were your dog, you would want to save it. If we didn’t, when we leave, what are they going to do? They are going to go out on that ice and save it, so it’s best for us to go out and save it so the owner doesn’t.”
Pollack said in the near future they hope to be able to share the hovercraft with surrounding counties.