ALEXANDRIA, Minn.-It may have looked like just an inflatable orange raft used in the Saturday ice rescue on Lake Ida about 10 miles north of Alexandria, but there is more to it than meets the eye.
The Nebulus Emergency Flotation device was created in Minnesota more than a decade ago specifically for ice rescues like the one that got a man and his daughter safely to shore after their utility vehicle broke through the ice.
The Nebulus is manufactured in Lakeville by JTW Associates. John Weinel, president of the company, got the idea for the Nebulus after a snowmobiler broke through the ice on a lake near his home and drowned.
Now the compact rescue tool is carried in most Douglas County Sheriff's Office vehicles. It was used last weekend to help rescue Patrick Wolf, 33, of Alexandria, and his 4-year-old daughter, Aubrey.
Sgt. Greg Windhurst, who supervises the dive team and Water Patrol unit for the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, said Douglas County has had the rescue devices for several years but it has been a few years since one has been used other than for training.
He said there should always be at least one officer on patrol who has a Nebulus in their vehicle. Vehicles are equipped with life vests, throw ropes and other rescue equipment.
Weinel said the Nebulus was developed with the help of engineering students at the University of Minnesota who helped improve the design over several years.
"Without the U of M engineering students, it would not have happened," Weinel said.
Early versions were given away to law enforcement agencies for testing in 2004. It was first used in 2006, when two county workers in southern Minnesota who were putting out "Thin Ice" signs broke through the ice themselves.
While he does not have official statistics, Weinel said the Nebulus has been used in nearly 300 rescues in the United States and Canada, including a recent incident near Lake Tahoe in northern California.
Weinel said it can support up to 1,000 pounds of weight for submerged vehicles, where the water can help support some of the vehicle's weight.
While mostly used by emergency responders, Weinel said some ice fishing guides or snowmobile groups also choose to invest in the rescue device.
The Nebulus is reusable, but has to be sent back to the manufacturer to have the inflator recharged after it is used.
With warm weather still in the forecast, Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen said people still need to be careful on the ice and carry flotation devices.
"The ice for the most part is safe," Wolbersen said, but people need to be aware of channels and vegetation that can weaken the ice. "Being familiar with the lake is helpful of course," Wolbersen said.
The sheriff's office said Wolf was not familiar with Lake Ida and the open water channel on the north end of the lake.
While Wolf and his daughter were not seriously hurt, Windhurst said a couple of other circumstances helped keep the Lake Ida incident from turning tragic:
• Someone saw the utility vehicle crash through the ice and called for help right away.
• The water was fairly shallow and Wolf was able to climb on top of the vehicle with his daughter.
"Had those things not happened, we could have had a much more different outcome," Windhurst said.