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Keeping 'Polar Bears' safe is priority at Olcott Lions' annual swim

For the thousands of people who have splashed into the frigid waters of Lake Ontario for the Olcott Polar Bear Swim for Sight, it's a fun day, from seeing friends to the thrill of the quick, painful plunge and raising funds for the Lions Club.

For the members of the Coast Guard and local fire departments who keep the swimmers safe, it's a day for guiding drivers, assessing hazards and being prepared to treat people for minor injuries.

"We don't get a chance to party," said Jason Seib, chief of the Miller Hose Co., which assists the Olcott Fire Co. with the event.

Firefighters from Olcott, with aid from Miller Hose and the Barker Fire Department, fill many roles at the event, from managing traffic on the streets surrounding Krull Park to standing by in the water or on the beach with first aid equipment.

[PHOTOS: Shots of the 2015 Olcott Polar Bear Swim]

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard look on from their perches at the 2015 Polar Bear Swim. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

The last line of safety during the actual plunge is provided by members of the Coast Guard out of the Youngstown station, who are immediately recognizable in the water in their black and bright orange ice-rescue dry suits and helmets, with yellow rescue slings over one shoulder.

"We set up a safety zone, we work with the Olcott Fire department and the police so none of the swimmers go out too far or get anywhere that could be dangerous for them," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Nathan Kierstead, who was in the water last year at the swim. "We want to make sure they are not going to fall underwater."

Stephen Miller, chief of the Olcott Fire Co., said six to eight firefighters with extensive ice rescue training and dressed in wetsuits will be stationed in the water for the duration of the plunge, which starts at 2 p.m. Sunday at the beach in Krull Park.

[PHOTOS: Smiles at the 2015 Polar Bear Swim in Olcott]

Olcott firefighters smile during the 2015 Polar Bear Swim. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

"They are the safety team for the swim, in case anybody has an injury or a problem," said Bill Clark of the Olcott Lions Club, who has been lead organizer of the event for the past 20 years. "We don't have many problems, but we always want to have someone there in case somebody gets in trouble."

Coast Guard members and firefighters "form a perimeter in the water, so none of the swimmers go out too deep and get in trouble," said Clark. "It's OK if they go in up to their waist or their chest, frolic around and jump around, that's fine. But if they take a few steps deeper, they could be in deeper water, and we don't want that."

Firefighters contain the crowd at the Olcott Lions Club's Swim for Sight. (Buffalo News file photo)

The usual minor medical issues are cuts or scrapes from ice in the water or the beach, or mild cases of hypothermia, which can set in quickly when the water and air are freezing and swimmers fail to heed the warnings to change into dry clothing quickly after the dip, said Clark.

Along with the firefighters, the departments bring plenty of equipment. Olcott parks at least two ambulances in Krull Park and and brings two small all-terrain utility vehicles onto the beach, said Miller. Barker brings a third utility vehicle that can bring up a patient in a basket.

The narrow set of stairs down to the beach from the park is usually crowded with people walking down for their timed dip and others walking up after taking the plunge. So firefighters, most of whom have advanced medical training, including many emergency medical technicians, prefer to place a patient in a basket and bring him or her up the slope next to the stairway.

Although injuries are rare, one man was brought up from the beach on the bed of the UTV in 2011.

Firefighters from Miller Hose Co. and Olcott Fire Co. bring a person up from the beach at the Swim for Sight in 2011. Organizers and first responders agreed that injuries are rare at the event, which is celebrating its 48th year. (Buffalo News file photo)

Fire department volunteers from across Niagara County who are qualified as fire police sign up to help direct traffic near the park.

Olcott Fire Co. hosts a breakfast at its firehall for volunteers before the swim, said Miller. "We have a little get-together at the fire hall beforehand, so people can grab some coffee. Afterward, when we are done, we'll have a little lunch."

This year, fire departments will compete in a chili cookoff from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Main Street near the park. Spectators pay $7 for a souvenir Polar Bear mug that will hold the samples.

Last year, some 460 people registered to take the plunge, said Clark. About 10 years ago, on a Sunday when the weather was nice, about 1,000 people showed up, he said, but for the past few years, the participants range between 450 and 600. Hundreds more show up to accompany the plungers or just watch the spectacle.

Clark estimates that in any given year, about half the swimmers have done it before and the other half are first-timers. The first to hit the water are swimmers under age 18, followed by the Polar Bear Queen contestants, then by those who have raised the most money.

A member of the Coast Guard looks on a Polar Bear Swim participants leave the frigid waters. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News file photo)

This is the event's 48th year. "In the old days, we didn't stay on top of them so much, but now we give them instructions with the loudspeaker system to be sure they avoid any risky behavior," Clark said.

Seib listed his volunteers' main concerns as hypothermia, intoxication and traffic congestion. Still, he said, he has never seen a severe injury. "Some of the people get cold, but it stays pretty safe," he said.

For Miller, the main challenge is the sheer number of people in the park, the staircase and on the small beach. "If you had an emergency on the beach and getting through the crowds to get to the ambulance, because there is no easy way."

Yet, unlike a crowd at a sports event, where team rivalries might spark fights, he said the crowd at the Swim for Sight is good-natured and cooperative. "I think a lot of people are there for a good reason, to raise money to help support charities," he said.

Coast Guard members watch as Mark Burns of Barker completely submerges. It's his 30th Polar Bear swim. His first one was in 1979. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)


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