Ottawa County officials look at strengthening ice rescue policy

JERUSALEM TWP. First responders and veteran fishermen had some choice words for the 134 fishermen wh
Sarah Weber
May 24, 2010

JERUSALEM TWP.

First responders and veteran fishermen had some choice words for the 134 fishermen who had to be rescued from a massive ice floe Saturday.

"What happened here today was just idiotic," said Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton.

"How stupid can you be?" said Jerusalem Township fire Chief Harold Stanton.

Now officials are reviewing more stringent means to prevent what many have called irresponsible chance-taking over the warm, windy weekend.

Bratton said he and the Lucas County Sheriff, James Telb, are reviewing policies that would allow for legal action against people who need to be repeatedly rescued from the ice.

The idea, he said, is to prevent taxpayers from having to fund expensive rescue efforts when people take a risk.

"We're telling the taxpayers we're going to protect your rights when it come to this cost," Bratton said. "But we're going to have to be fair to the ice fishermen."

The cost of fuel alone for the four aircraft used in the rescue effort totaled more than $15,000, Bratton said. With the additional cost of personnel and vehicles from the 21 agencies responding to the ice break, the total cost was estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The break that stranded the fishermen Saturday spanned eight miles from Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area to Crane Creek State Park, north of Oak Harbor.

Rescue personnel also arrived to a location about 200 yards north of Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Erie Township, where a 65-year-old man, Leslie Love, of New Albany, died of an apparent heart attack after he and his snowmobile fell through the ice. He was not among the fishermen who were stranded.

Bratton said the people rescued from the floe Saturday used poor judgment not only by ignoring weather conditions, but by using a makeshift bridge to cross a crack in the ice to go further out onto Lake Erie.

He said many experienced sportsmen, including charter captains who have operated out of the area for years, knew better than to risk ice fishing in the warm and windy weather. Pat Chrysler, a Put-in-Bay charter captain, left an answering machine message Friday, telling customers he would not go out because weather reports called for high winds.

Chrysler did not return calls for comment Monday night, but he told the Associated Press he agreed with local law enforcement who want some kind of penalty for those who ignore ice safety.

"These guys walk out there and see the airboats and think they'll be taken care of," Chrysler said.

Ottawa County has had a three-strike policy for several years, which Bratton said deputies have never had to enforce.

According to the policy, someone who has to be rescued from unsafe ice twice in one season must take an ice safety course. A third offense could warrant civil action to recoup the cost of the rescue.

Bratton said if Saturday's rescue had been initiated in Ottawa County instead of Lucas County, deputies would have implemented the policy and collected the names of the fishermen for storage in a database.

After speaking with other law enforcement officials Sunday, Bratton said he is considering strengthening the policy to allow civil action after two strikes.

Bratton said Telb is considering implementing his own version of the policy in Lucas County to make people think twice about taking unnecessary risks on the ice.

But even with the deterrent of being liable for rescue costs, Bratton said people will still likely take chances by venturing out onto unsafe ice.

The sheriff is also working with the U.S. Coast Guard at Marblehead to come up with some kind of ice rating system to warn anglers about unsafe conditions.

Coast Guard Chief Greg Zerfass said as a rule of thumb, the ice should be considered unpredictable.

Those who choose to ice fish should be cautious at all times, he said.

The Coast Guard does not penalize people who need to be rescued from the ice, but it does try to educate people to prevent dangerous situations.

"We're looking at educating the public at this point," Zerfass said. "We want to make sure people are properly equipped."

ICE SAFETY TIPS

* Dress appropriately and wear a life vest.

* Check the weather report before venturing out on the ice.

* Keep tabs on the weather for the duration of your trip.

* Notify family or friends when you plan to leave and where you plan to fish. Check in with them when you return to shore.

* Make sure you have the proper equipment, including a pick.

* Have a cell phone or radio available so you can notify someone if you have a problem.

* Inexperienced ice anglers should venture out with an experienced partner or a guide from a local charter service.

* Go slow and look for warning signs, like water sitting on the ice and cracks.