When a hiker or someone walking a dog by a local river falls through the ice, minutes and seconds count for rescue crews to reach the victim.

The Missoula City Fire Department conducted training on the Clark Fork River near the California Street Bridge  on Thursday, January 2. Training Officer Matt Kerns said the department has a team dedicated to river rescue, and they train on a regular basis.

"We have a dedicated technical rescue team and our job is to research the latest and greatest tactics in rescue disciplines," Kerns said. "We'll be out there doing some tethered swimming, some rescues off our cata-raft and will be going through some other operational issues to tighten things up a little bit, so when we do get that call we're just that much more efficient and ready to go."

Kerns described some of the rescue scenarios the team primarily faces in the winter.

"People are walking along on shelf ice on the river's edge, maybe walking their dog, and not realizing that this ice that was completely stable a week ago is now part of a potential rescue situation," Kerns said. "We get a lot of dog walkers and people just exploring the ice, getting too close to the river and falling in."

Kerns said time is the most important factor in a winter river rescue.

"People who fall in the water are rapidly losing their body heat," Kerns said. "They're losing their fine motor coordination, like their ability to hold on to the edge of the ice and that definitely makes the situation time-sensitive. We try to have a generic system that will cover our bases for all the rivers that pass through the city, the Clark Fork, the Bitterroot and the Blackfoot."

Kerns advises anyone recreating close to the rivers during the winter that it can be dangerous to get too close, especially people with dogs.

"Pets seem to be the biggest common factor during these rescue calls," Kerns said. "People are out there throwing a ball for the dog and the dog can't get back up on the shelf, and people try to rescue their pet and end up falling into the water. Maybe it's just not a good time to be down at the water, since there are so many other wonderful recreational opportunities in western Montana."

Kerns advice for anyone recreating near a river is clear.

"Just be aware of what's around you and the dangers that are there, and just to play it safe," he said.

Training Officer Matt Kerns


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