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Ice no barrier to DNR divers

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By Vince Luecke

Polar bears they're not, but Indiana Department of Natural Resources divers proved Tuesday they have the nerve and equipment to save lives in the coldest of conditions, even under the ice.

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Five conservation divers slipped beneath 3 inches of ice at Patoka Lake's south ramp for a morning training session. Teams of two divers spent up to 10 minutes under water, honing search skills and testing the equipment – including dive suits that allow them to cope with the cold – they rely on during winter rescues.

This week's training involved operational dives similar to what officers are asked to perform when searching for victims or trying to recover submerged vehicles or evidence.

"Water-related rescues and tragedies don't end with the coming of winter," First Sgt. Phil Schuetter said. "Any number of emergencies can arise, from vehicle slide-offs into the water to ice fishermen falling through the ice."

Each winter, children are tempted to venture onto ice-covered ponds, Schuetter added. DNR divers have to be ready to work in any conditions.

The "dry suits" used by officers prevent water from coming into direct contact with divers' arms, legs and torsos.  A small layer of air between the suit and skin is warmed naturally by the body but divers' time under water is still limited by the cold. However, suits, equipment and training allow them to save lives.

Though their chattering voices audible through underwater radios proved they were cold, divers didn't complain.

"It was cold but not really that bad. I wouldn't mind another try," diver Eric Doane said after he and fellow officer Ryan Jahn spent more than eight minutes under the ice.

Divers are tethered to ropes held by support crews on the surface and are able to communicate with radios built into the suits, as well as tugs on ropes

A heated tent near the snow-covered ramp, where a hole had been chopped in the ice, allowed officers to warm themselves between dives.   

DNR divers have been summoned to Perry County all too often over the past couple of years to help recover drowning victims. While the county has not had a recent cold-weather drowning, other areas of the state haven't been as fortunate.

Three men died this month when they fell into lakes in northern Indiana. Two were on snowmobiles that broke through the ice. The third man died after his ice boat overturned.

Outdoors columnist Phil Junker warns of the dangers of venturing onto the ice in his column today's print edition.