Tuscola 911 Uses Prepared to Help Save 14 Stranded on Ice

Imagine that you’re stranded on an ice floe, in the middle of a frozen body of water, in the dead of winter, in Michigan. Then imagine that the first person that came to rescue you also got stuck and joined you as stranded...

...then add 12 more people.

Six public safety professionals at Tuscola County Central Dispatch faced this exact situation on February 6th, 2023. Their names are:

The story made waves in the news, including a report on CBS. Untold and unmentioned, however, in many of the stories, is the heroics of those on the Tuscola County Central Dispatch team.

This is the never-before-heard story of how they helped save all 14 people, as told by recipient and Director Jon Ramirez, working together with the Coast Guard and eight other public safety agencies, and earned the first-ever collective Prepared T.O.P. (Telecommunicator Operating Prepared technology) Save award.

Gone fishing, got stranded

Note: comments have been edited lightly for clarity and continuity

An airboat travels across Saginaw Bay

“On Feb. 6th, Monday, about a quarter after 7PM, the Tuscola County Central Dispatch received a phone call from an ice fisherman on Saginaw Bay. He had come across a snowmobile operator that had went through the ice and was in the water. [The fisherman] helped the other out of the water…they didn’t have shelter to put him in so they called 9-1-1.

“We have two counties that sit on Saginaw Bay…so as we’re speaking with the first caller, we got another call from another gentlemen that said they were on an ice floe starting to go out to Lake Huron. Around this time, Huron County also started to receive phone calls from people on the ice. The main difference between us and Huron is that we use Prepared technology.

“At this point the gap between the ice floe and the shore ice was about 15 yards…but they were three and a half miles out. [Another person that tried to rescue them] tried to race his snowmobile out to them but he didn’t make it so he needed to be rescued…so eventually they started to clump together on this ice and we found there to be 10 snowmobiles and 14 individuals stranded on this ice floe.

“About that time we were notified by the Coast Guard that they were also receiving rescue calls from individuals on this ice floe. So it really took a coordinated effort from local officials in Tuscola and Huron County plus the Coast Guard to get everybody picked off.

Footage from the rescue shared by the US Coast Guard

The first rescue would be undertaken using an airboat that Tuscola County and Huron County had worked together to obtain through a grant funding program, with the remaining souls to be rescued via helicopter….but how could they pinpoint where exactly the stranded group was?

“Going back to our first caller…he used his “fish finder” to pull their GPS coordinates. We were able to get access to these coordinates through Prepared Live…We took a snapshot of the video with the fish finder in it and sent that out, so we weren’t trying to get GPS coordinates over a shoddy cellphone reception, we didn’t transpose any numbers, we had an actual photo of his GPS location.

Then, using Prepared OnScene, we were able to take those coordinates and directly relay them to the first responders…That meant not only to me on scene as incident commander but also to the crew on the airboat and, with that, the crew on the airboat was able to relay it to the Coast Guard and the crew in the helicopter.”

With so many people stranded, it was crucial to first rescue those who had the greatest need for treatment…but how could they know for sure who that was?

“[Via livestream from Prepared Live, shared with responders through OnScene], we had eyes on the patient, eyes on the rescuer, we had a snapshot of the GPS coordinates, which also gave us the depth of the water. It was a lot of information to get.”

“One of the stranded individuals was deteriorating rapidly because of they had no shelter [and had gone into the water]. Any time someone goes into the water there’s concern but we were able to watch his medical condition deteriorate and pass that on to the crews.

“[Via livestream from Prepared Live, shared with responders through OnScene], we had eyes on the patient, eyes on the rescuer, we had a snapshot of the GPS coordinates, which also gave us the depth of the water. It was a lot of information to get.”

Ultimately, we have to triage these patients and the crew could see him devolving as he suffered hypothermia and struggled to obtain air. It was about 15 degrees with 20 to 25 mile per hour winds and he was about to freeze to the ice because of the water on his clothing, so we triaged him and got him back first.

It’s remarkable when you can get multiple organizations [together] to create a good outcome and it’s even more remarkable when you can do it with local organizations and bring in the feds…From the time of call to the time we were able to get in touch with the air crew was 15 minutes. They had GPS coordinates 15 minutes after the initial call.

“It was amazing to have this capability…I had wondered about the cost and if it was going to be worth it and how much we were going to be able to use it. Within a week we were able to rescue 14 people, so I think definitely the cost is worth every penny.”

An exemplary effort in more ways than one

One of the more amazing elements of this story is that the public safety organizations of the area had a training exercise scheduled to prepare for this kind of incident, but it had to be delayed because of…wait for it…unsatisfactory ice conditions.

“This exercise was designed after an ice floe incident that occurred on Lake Erie last year and we were all looking forward to working together, we just had no idea that it was going to have a real-life example so close,” said Director Ramirez.

He adds, “This is the first time we’ve had an ice floe that I can remember and, ironically, we now have a field exercise scheduled for the end of February with the Coast Guard to reenact this.”

For Director Ramirez himself, the incident was a collision of his two careers: one as director of the 9-1-1 center and another as a lieutenant with the fire department (and, in prior service, as an officer with the Tuscola County Sheriff's Office).

Director Ramirez receiving the Officer of the Year award for 2019

“It was unique to be on [the responder side] of a call and notice some of the issues [we were having], then being able to have a direct impact on how dispatch responds to those in the future,” he says.

Throughout our conversation, however, Director Ramirez took every opportunity to deflect praise onto his team. Of that night, he says, “We had five dispatchers working: along with my supervisor, we had two seasoned dispatchers and two in training…but none of the five had done an ice rescue. It was really cool to see the pieces and policies fall into place in real-time.”

He concluded by saying, “I appreciate the opportunity to brag about my team.”

And brag you should, Director!

Prepared is proud to partner with Tuscola County Central Dispatch and these incredible heroes.

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