When the weather turns cold in Duluth, people venture out onto the ice of Lake Superior and the St. Louis River.
For decades, the fire department has responded to emergencies where folks have fallen through thin ice. In the
past, firefighters would throw a rope, push out an inflated fire hose, or shimmy out on a ladder to distribute
weight in hopes of reaching a victim before he or she drowned. None of these options were particularly effective or
In the early 1980's, the fire department purchased Stearns "Gumby" suits. The suits were buoyant but designed
strictly for survival, not rescue. Firefighters made ice picks out of wood dowels and rope "throws" out of empty
bleach jugs. The limitations of this equipment became clear on Easter Sunday in 1985 when a firefighter entered an
ice-laden ship canal in the dark to rescue a suicidal woman. Strong currents and freezing water overcame the victim
just outside the reach of help. The DFD rescuer struggled back to safety, as several hundred feet of water-soaked
utility rope dragged him down through the water.
In the late 1990's, the department purchased suits and rope systems designed specifically for ice rescue and began
training as professional ice rescuers. Firefighters learned how to quickly approach a victim, join him or her in
the water, and then harness them in a rescue sling for retrieval to shore. Rope throw bags with floating rope were
also purchased, along with waterproof flashlights for night operations.
Ice rescue equipment is now a required complement for companies stationed near Lake Superior and/or the St. Louis
River. 5 Engine on Park Point, 6 Engine in Lakeside, 8 Truck in Spirit Valley, 10 Engine in Gary, and Rescue 1
Downtown all keep the necessary tools, ropes, and suits on board at all times for immediate response to cold water
Ice rescue training is required annually for all fire department personnel. The training is hands-on, meaning
firefighters suit-up and simulate rescues either in the St. Louis River or harbor in winter conditions.
Firefighters practice how to traverse thin ice, rescue victims, and recognize and treat hypothermia. They also
review and familiarize themselves with the best access sites to Lake Superior, the harbor, and the St. Louis River
Duluth Fire works closely with the United States Coast Guard and St. Louis County Rescue Squad to provide a tiered
response to water and ice emergencies. However, it is often the fire department that is first on the scene in areas
where rescue boats are unable to reach due to ice.