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Skating on Thin Ice

Thin ice claimed more than a few cars at Winterfest; it also claimed a life.  Even with the  warnings on  the Saturday before last, the Lake Geneva ice covering sent a message more deadly.  Instead of discomfort, distress and some cash, this time the lake demanded a life.

An Illinois man and his friend were snowmobiling at about nine p.m. out in mid-lake, straight offshore from Williams Bay, when they ran into a patch of lake not covered by ice.  In the snowmobiles went.  One guy got off and slid to a stop before descending into the dark cold water.  The other man was not so lucky.  The man on the ice used his cell phone to call for help.  Help was not to be forthcoming.

According to this report: “DNR Warden Juan Gomez says that because of all the open water in the center of the lake, they didn’t want to put any emergency responders at risk until they were prepared.”  Really?  That’s the best Geneva Lake provides in the way of assistance, even for visitors who should know better but don’t?  The sentence for snowmobiling at night on Geneva Lake is death?  The people who live in close proximity to Geneva Lake well understand the treachery of its winter coating of ice.  The depth of the lake is such that the area over the very deepest part seldom freezes over to a significant enough thickness to hold up a vehicle of any kind.

As it turns out, here is the way that emergency 911 calls are handled, should you be in the local Southern Wisconsin area and need to make such a call; all land line calls go to the local departments for dispatching.  If there is no one on duty at the time in the smaller departments, such calls are skipped to the Walworth County Sheriff dispatcher’s offices on duty, 24/7.  All cell phone 911 calls (the largest percentage) are immediately handled by the sheriff’s office and distributed or “toned out” to the fire or police department deemed to be most applicable by that dispatcher.

The Lake Geneva Police Department (Chief Mike Rasmussen being the tip of that actively vital blue spear) was instrumental in getting the Wisconsin codes changed to allow for cell phone 911 calls to be directly routed to local police departments instead of incurring a delay by going through a third party dispatcher.  That was three years ago.  The process of installing the hardware in order to accomplish that mission is still underway.  Sargent Vavra was interviewed at the Williams Bay Police Department.  Sargent Vavra indicated that the Williams Bay Fire Department was the first emergency responder ‘toned out’ with respect to responding to the snowmobile emergency.

The body of the Illinois man lost in the snowmobile mishap was recovered only after a hovercrafts from Fox Lake and Delavan responded to the “neighbor” tone alert that went out to all local emergency responders in the Geneva Lake area (Lake Geneva, Fontana, Linn and Delavan all responded).  The Lake Geneva hovercraft remains broken down with a defective propeller, so it was unavailable to assist.  According to DNR warden Juan Gomez; the Walworth County dispatchers normally ‘tone out’ local police departments, then call other emergency responders.  The question of why it took an hour to get anyone at all out to the site of the snowmobile accident remains open.  It is unlikely that the local police and fire departments around the lake are at fault, as their record of rushing in to provide a truly heroic response has been graphically demonstrated of late (during the recent fire emergency in Lake Geneva and the car sinking on the ice at Winterfest).  Somewhere in the matrix of how emergency responders are notified that assistance is needed, there’s a problem.

The Lake Geneva Police Department appears to be all over it in getting calls redirected directly to the agency closest to where the problem is developing.  Hopefully, response times will be cut substantially for occurrences that take place out on the ice in the future.  The Winterfest car sinking established once and for all that some centralization of order needs to be applied to all vehicular traffic out on that treacherous ice, and now this snowmobile death confirms it.  Incidentally, if you happen to be connected to the Walworth County Sheriff’s dispatching center be prepared for some analytical confrontation.  Don’t be offended, it’s simply their style.  Once local communications with the most excellent smaller agencies around the lake are re-established, there will be that local southern Wisconsin charm infused back into the system.


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