The Power of Drones, Lighting and Thermal Imaging in Night Ice Rescues

Last month, a Fire Department in Northeast NE was conducting an ice and cold water rescue training. They used their drone (equipped with a thermal camera) and inquired about using some of our FoxFury Nomad scene lights to use in this training as it would be a night-time exercise. Thanks to Live Streaming technology (from All Mobile Vision), I checked out this training halfway across the country in real-time.

I learned a lot along the way and I wanted to pass along some of the information I learned, feedback I heard and observations I had. I also wanted to visually show how tools like UAS (unmanned aerial systems), thermal imaging cameras and lighting could be great assets for SAR teams. First off, here is some information to help quantify and qualify ice rescues and the challenges they present.

Ice Rescue Facts

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  • In 2019, 65 people in the US died in 54 accidents. Leading causes involved use of snowmobiles and ATVs along with fishing and playing. Where time of day was known, 27 fatalities were in the dark and 20 were during the day.
  • There are cases where ice rescues are needed to save a pet who fell in the ice. In some of these cases, the owner chases the pet (ex. dog that runs after geese) only for the pet or owner to fall in the ice.
  • If someone accidentally falls through ice, they have approximately 10 minutes before they lose effective use of their hands, arms, and legs. After around 10 minutes, cold incapacitation kicks in and they lose the ability to swim and will drown if they are not wearing a life jacket.
  • It is not recommended to go on ice if the ice thickness is less than 2 inches (5 cm).
  • Beyond ice thickness, a number of other issues can make some parts of the ice more susceptible to cracking. The include pressure ridges, folded ridges, thawing temperatures and weight / pressure applied.

The Training and Location

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Here is a quick background on the training. This FD performs this training every year at a popular park with a lake that freezes often in the winter. This location is selected because people do walk on the ice and go fishing on the lake even when the ice is thinner. Every once in a while, people fall in and need to be rescued. If and when it happens at night, it is much harder to see and therefore rescue victims.

A night training allowed the department a challenging opportunity to work through logistics and better prepared to respond faster, safer and more confidently when a real ice rescue needed to be performed. The team practiced getting in and out of their ice rescue suits quickly, getting in and out of the water, tying knots in the rope and getting the victim out of the ice. They talked through safety concerns and got their reps in so they could check their equipment and hone their skills. The cold conditions associated with ice rescues makes even some small things like tying a knot more challenging due to thick, wet / frozen gloves.

When you account for someone calling 911 and the Fire Department arriving on scene, firefighters can have precious little time to work. For this reason, trainings are critical to ensure that equipment works, processes are efficient and techniques and tools are used effectively.

The Training Scenario

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The mission was simple: rescue the victim who fell through the ice at night.

As you can see from the image above, this lake area is very dark and has little ambient or street lighting. But that doesn't stop some locals from ice fishing or walking with their kids, friends or pets over the ice. In this training the victim the victim fell through the ice at a distance of roughly 100 ft (30 m) from the shoreline.

Normally temperatures in this area are in the 20s where the ice remains solid. In these instances, the ice is thicker than 2" and rescue personnel could walk on foot and use the ropes to pull the victim out of the water. In addition, scene lighting could be brought and positioned near the rescue / work area thereby saving time and improving the overall safety and illumination where the victim was.

On the day of this training, temperatures were in the 40s so the ice had been thawing all day long and was turning into slush when stepped on. This completely changed tactics and the importance of select tools.

This now meant that search and scene lighting had to be restricted to the shoreline, which meant the potential for less visibility and more time needing to be spent searching for the victim. With visual cues being harder to to come by, a premium was put on being able to listen for cries for help or people giving directions to where the victim might be. It also put a premium on tools like thermal imaging cameras that could quickly provide decision making information like heat detection in the water.

Lighting Tools

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In this training exercise, the department utilized a few different lighting tools.

For starters, they used a generator powered tower light. It was by far the brightest of the lights used and covered the widest area because it was by far the tallest light. The light was attached to a truck and was powered by the generator. It took 5 minutes to get to full brightness and provided the most illumination in terms of lumens and lux. It did a great job overall. Two limitations of this light (in an ice rescue situation) were:

  1. It generated a steady amount of noise due to the generator running. Even though this light was positioned the furthest back, the constant noise made communication more challenging for responders on the shoreline. It also made it that much harder to hear the victim who was trying to shout from 100 ft (30 m) into the lake.
  2. A dedicated driver and vehicle was needed to bring the light to the scene. While it happened to be on site for this training, it may not always be practical in situations where every minute matters and it takes 20 to 40 minutes to get this vehicle on scene. It's also not the best tool if the person was in an area that was too far to reach or blocked by an obstacle like a large tree or structure.

Two FoxFury Nomad 360 lights were also used in this scenario. Both lights were fully extended to 8.5 ft (2.6 m) tall and placed on the spotlight setting to aim as far from shore as possible to illuminate the victim in the water. The beam shined as far out as the tower light but wasn't as wide and didn't deliver as many lux in some areas as the tower light. Had the ice been thicker, these lights could have been placed nearer to the victim but that was not possible on this night. While portable, quicker to set up and therefore more practical, more lights would be needed to illuminate the same area as a tower light.

Learn More About FoxFury Nomad Scene Lights

Here is a picture below of the two Nomad 360 lights by themselves. You can see how the two beams converge to illuminate the hole that the victim was trapped in.

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An off the shelf tripod light was placed between the two Nomad lights. It was the lightest weight light but also the least powerful. The beam of this light projected 1/3 as far as the Nomads and tower light. It had a narrower flood beam as well. By itself, the beam would (at best) have barely been able to reach the victim.

Scene lighting is critical for ensuring that all rescue personnel can work safely and quickly. A long throw and a quick set up are vital in night-time ice rescues. Without lighting, this dangerous job becomes even more hazardous for all involved.

The Drone and Thermal Camera

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This exercise was a perfect use case for the use of a drone (AKA sUAS or UAV). An Autel Evo II Dual drone was used to capture images and provide decision making information. This drone is equipped with a FLIR Boson 640 thermal sensor.

As you can clearly see from the image above, it quickly and beautifully shows the heat signature of the victim. The above image shows the victim in mid rescue as he is holding on to the rescue rope. You can see the round hole in the ice at the bottom of the picture (which still shows a heat signature) of where he had been pulled from moments before.

Visit the Complete Guide to Drone Lights

Given the temperature difference between the icy water and people, it is easy to locate people. The ability to use a thermal imaging camera on ice rescues no doubt saves valuable time and lives.

Once the victim was found, all rescue equipment from ropes to lights to other assistive devices need to be brought to the victim so they can be quickly brought to shore where medical interventions can be performed. The video below shows the value of the lighting and rescue equipment.

Video above was shot with an Autel Evo II Dual UAS.

Bringing It Home...Literally and Figuratively

Two days after this training exercise, a department 2 hours away made a life-saving rescue. A fisherman had accidentally broken through the ice and managed to hang onto an ice shelf about 30 yards from the shore. Thankfully a firefighter equipped with an ice rescue suit and, attached to a rescue line, crawled out on the ice to make the save...just like in the training exercise. That speaks to the need to regularly do challenging trainings like this one so that responders are ready when the real thing hits.

Days after that, an ice rescue was made in Canada thanks to the assistance of a drone spotlight. You can see the incredible footage below.

Unfortunately, tragedy can strike as well and sometimes it is too late. A week after that save above, a 60 year old man and 8 year old boy lost their lives when they fell through ice in South Dakota

Because the quality of the ice in a real-world ice rescue operation is unpredictable and unknowable, it is critical for responders to have the right gear and training to be prepared for when the real emergencies happen. I'm thankful to this FD for sharing this footage and helping me better understand how drones, lighting and thermal imaging cameras can save lives in these unpredictable ice and cold water rescue operations.

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