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Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, Gillis Benedict) NO SALES, Associated Press
In this Feb. 3, 2012 photo, Hamburg Township Fire Department Deputy Chief Nick Miller navigates an airboat acquired by the department for ice and water rescues during a routine training session with fellow department firefighters, in Hamburg, Mich.

HAMBURG TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Michigan's unusual winter has led to vulnerabilities on the ice of Hamburg Township lakes — and as a result, four pets have fallen through the ice this season.

Those pets were rescued by Hamburg Township firefighters thanks to special equipment — an airboat specifically designed for all types of weather, including cutting through ice — that is available locally only at the Hamburg Township Fire Department.

"One of the hardest things to do is to have the right tools to do our job," Fire Chief Mark Hogrebe said. "This is one of the tools that makes our job a little bit easier and safer to make these rescues. Had we not had the boat or (had) a different type of boat, it might have been harder to do the job."

The Hamburg Firefighters Association purchased the 16-foot Rivercraft airboat about 10 years ago for the department, and the mild winter season has given the department ample opportunity to train on the boat's use.

"It's about competency and confidence," Assistant Chief Nick Miller explained. "It's a unique piece of equipment. ... It doesn't have brakes or reverse. If I'm going to save someone on the ice, I have to know when to stop."

The boat seats two — the driver and a passenger or patient. Also on board is medical equipment, including a backboard; radio communications; lifejackets and lights.

The airboat has a flat bottom and an engine typically used in aircraft, Hogrebe said. It also sports a four-blade propeller that moves on the water and pushes the boat forward as well as back fins that steer the boat left or right.

"We used it four times this year; it's done its job," Hogrebe said.

Fortunately, the department has not had to use the boat to rescue people, but it has used the boat four times this winter to rescue pets who have fallen through the ice.

"This year's (use of the boat) has been higher due to the ice conditions," Miller said. "This winter has been brutal for ice. It's produced some and melted some."

If the ice is too thin for household pets, it is too weak for humans, and Hamburg fire officials suggest never trying to rescue a pet that has fallen through ice.

They repeat that advice if it is a person who has fallen through the ice.

Instead, experts recommend that witnesses keep an eye on the person who has fallen through the ice so they can call 911 and tell rescuers where that individual is.

For anyone who tries to help a victim, firefighters suggest talking to the victim to reassure him or her that help is coming and to reach out using anything available, such as a ladder or rope, while remembering not to get too close and making yourself a victim.

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Items such as jumper cables, hoses or rope can be thrown to and used to pull someone from the ice. Rescuers suggest having the victim tie the rope around his or her waist before hypothermia sets in and makes grasping the item too difficult.

If a boat is available, rescuers also can row out to the victim.

If none of those efforts help, however, then they recommend going out onto the ice by lying down and rolling or sliding up to the edge of the hole. This helps distribute body weight over a larger surface, making the ice less likely to break more.

"I love it when I don't have to work," Miller said. "If I'm working, that means someone is hurt, and we don't want that."

Information from: Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, http://www.livingstondaily.com