The Yellowknife Fire Department is defending its response time to an ice rescue on the weekend.

It took the department four minutes to get to the edge of Great Slave Lake after receiving a call that someone went through the ice.

But emergency responders didn't arrive right away at the spot where a dog musher had gone through the ice — it was a passing snowmobiler who pulled the man from the water.

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Responders had trouble finding out where the musher was located, which contributed to a longer response time, according to fire officials. (CBC)

As is the case after any rescue, the fire department is reviewing what went well, and what didn't.

Initially, the four-person rescue crew walked the wrong way and saw people waving out at the Dettah ice road. It wasn't until they got closer that they realized they were signaling for the musher, who was another 1,000 metres down the lake.

"Sometimes it can add confusion to the incident, and with the nature of them flagging and wagging us down they can be perceived to being in trouble themselves," said deputy fire chief Craig MacLean.

The snowmobiler who rescued the musher offered a lift on his sled to the four firefighters. However, the fire department has a policy not to accept rides to an ice rescue.

"We never are sure of that individual — are they panicked or upset, are they going to drive safely, is there potential to endanger our personnel? We're not sure of the mechanical nature of the equipment they're using," said MacLean.

MacLean said in the future, responders might carry knives that could have helped free the dogs. But MacLean said that wouldn't have changed the outcome of the incident.

Ice can be unpredictable in spring

The rescue is reminding Yellowknifers to be careful on the ice this time of year.

It's not the first time people have gone through the ice in that area, and some say currents and rock outcrops can weaken ice.

"That's one of the big hazards with ice at this time of year: you don't really know if it's safe or not," said Tom Girrior, who is with Yellowknife Search and Rescue.

"You can be walking along and 10 seconds later you could be up to your armpits and your friends are trying to haul you out. It happens that fast and it's that unpredictable."

Girrior said as a rule of thumb, if the ice is white or a chalky colour, it’s still strong. But if it’s black, that spells trouble.

He advises people to check boating charts or test the ice if they don't know the area, and he recommends people stay off the ice if they're not sure.