PORT CLINTON - Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton says he hopes his new ice-rescue policy will persuade fishermen and others who venture onto frozen waters to use caution and common sense.
Three weeks after meeting with firefighters, police officers, and ice guides, the sheriff this week implemented an emergency response plan that calls for the arrest of anyone who returns to the ice after being rescued - unless he has permission from the sheriff or a senior aide.
The plan also states that anyone pulled off the ice three or more times in the same season will be sued in small claims court to recover the rescue costs of county and local agencies.
"It's a policy of the sheriff's office, so it could be subject to change upon further review," Sheriff Bratton said yesterday. "Rescuing somebody three times in a year says very loud and clear that somebody doesn't understand ice fishing and the dangers involved."
To keep track of those it helps rescue, the sheriff's department will collect their names, addresses, birth dates, and Social Security numbers and enter them into a database. A person who shows up in the database twice in a season will be advised to take an ice safety class; anyone who completes the class will be removed from the database.
Sheriff Bratton said he would like to develop such a class with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and some of Ottawa County's veteran ice guides.
"We would like people to take it and learn that if you're going to go out and ice fish, this is the equipment you need, this is the communications gear you should have," the sheriff said.
To educate himself, Sheriff Bratton said he will attend a U.S. Coast Guard seminar on ice rescues Feb. 7-9 in Bay City, Mich.
The sheriff decided to develop an ice-rescue policy after firefighters and Coast Guard personnel plucked 15 people from a floe in Lake Erie off Crane Creek State Park on Feb. 24, 2005. After being rescued, several fishermen headed back out in a boat to retrieve belongings left on the ice, an act that upset the sheriff.
The largest cost in such rescues is incurred when the Coast Guard dispatches one or more of its helicopters. A spokesman for the 9th Coast Guard District in Cleveland said last month that it costs about $8,700 to have a helicopter in the air for one hour.
However, Coast Guard officials have said they won't charge those they rescue to cover such costs, no matter how many times someone gets stuck.
Area ice fishing guides said the sheriff's new policy seems fair.
"It's not anything I could be against," said Jerry Abele of Lakeside, Ohio, who has led ice fishermen onto the lake for 20 years. "You'd have to be really lax in your vigilance to get stuck out there three times in a year. ... It doesn't sound too tough."
Pat Chrysler, a veteran Put-in-Bay ice guide and a captain with the town's volunteer fire department, said experienced Lake Erie fishermen can tell in advance when ice will begin breaking into floes and won't risk being trapped. The top warning sign is offshore winds that unlock ice from the mainland shoreline, he said.
"When there's an offshore wind, you shouldn't be out there," Mr. Chrysler said.
He said he's interested in developing an ice-safety class but suggested one change to the sheriff's new policy: Don't charge local residents for repeated rescues.
"My opinion of that was, if they weren't a taxpayer in this area, they should be charged," Mr. Chrysler said. "The taxpayers are already paying for the service."
Contact Steve Murphy at: