MICHIGAN CITY | Rescuers steadily walked across Lake Michigan on Wednesday evening, the creaking and cracking of ice echoing through the dark night.
As they walked, they called out, searching for two victims who had fallen through the ice and into the freezing waters of the lake.
The victims, actually volunteers with the U.S. Coast Guard Station, were found and pulled to safety.
It was a drill, but participants from the Coast Guard and Portage, Chesterton and Porter fire departments said teaming up and practicing the "what-ifs" and scenarios of rescue are essential to being prepared when the real thing happens.
"We all have a lot of different knowledge," Chief Petty Officer Josh Janney told the rescuers as he explained their mission to "locate (the victims), get them out of the water and to EMS."
"It is invaluable training to work with the Coast Guard," said Jay Craig, head of the Porter water rescue team, explaining the Coast Guard has worked types of rescues the local departments haven't.
Some dressed in cold water gear, others in dive suits, the crews took off after the mock rescue call came in, walking across the ice some 4 to 6 inches thick. The air temperature Wednesday night was 14 degrees. The wind chill was 5 below zero when the group began training.
The teams practiced a variety of scenarios during night ice rescue training Tuesday and Wednesday in and around the Coast Guard station and Washington Park. They used sleds, night vision cameras, thermal imaging equipment and flares.
Assistant Portage Fire Chief Dan Kodicek said it is important for the different groups to train together. They'd likely be called out together in case of a real incident and it is better if each knows the others' methods and procedures.
"It is a great opportunity to see what each has, what each of our capabilities are," Kodicek said.
Chesterton Fire Chief Mike Orlich agreed.
"We are very proactive in our training. We need to stay up on the latest techniques," Orlich said. He said this was the first time Chesterton's team had trained with the Coast Guard.
And, they said, it's not only Lake Michigan's waters they need to be prepared to navigate during rescues. Porter County and the region are dotted with small inland lakes where ice fishermen or skaters or just about anyone can venture.
This time of year is also the most dangerous, as the ice begins to thin and weaken.
"Lake Michigan is always inherently dangerous with shelf ice," Craig said.
"This is the prime time of the year when the ice begins to melt in March," Kodicek said.