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With winter upon us, many people will enjoy outdoor activities that involve frozen bodies of water. Ice fishing, ice skating, sledding, or just brisk walks in the woods can lead to people breaking through the ice and having a water emergency or drowning incident. Even experienced outdoorsmen have drowned when falling through the ice. It is estimated that nearly 8,000 people die each year from drowning.

Even though the ice may appear safe and may be as much as 6 inches deep, the dangers of breaking through the ice and drowning are still prevalent. The ice may be thick in one area of the lake or pond, but thin in others. Underwater current can cause the ice to become very thin with streams or rivers still flowing under the ice. Another concern is the chance of ice thawing even when under a blanket of snow. Bodies of water freeze and thaw throughout the winter and this may make the ice unstable and weak.

There have been times in lakes and reservoirs that the water level drops and the layer of original ice may be a great distance from the actual body of water. This creates a false layer between the water and bottom of the ice creating a void and thus, making the ice unsafe.

Another type of pond that is very dangerous all year round is a retention pond. Retention ponds were built to help with storm water overflow and prevent flooding. The owners of these ponds should do everything possible to protect people from entering these ponds. Some states and cities require fencing off the areas to prevent drowning. It is the responsibility of the neighborhoods’ associations and apartment owners to post these areas as "off limits". If they fail, then they may be held accountable for death and injury cases. Residents should be warned to stay away from retention ponds.

When attempting to go on ice pay close attention to both the color of the ice and the shore line. Clear ice, when thick enough, is good ice. Cloudy ice can mean that the ice has thawed and refrozen. With this type of ice it is extremely important to use all the safety precautions. Ice referred to as "black ice" is generally thin ice, not yet frozen solid or a thin layer of ice over shallow water.

Even with precautions and safety plans in place, ice emergencies can happen. Be prepared for such an emergency. You should always dress in warm, layered winter clothing. Hypothermia is a major cause of death in cold water incidents. If you are going to be around a body of water anytime, wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Another good idea is to carry an ice pick. Although hypothermia is the greatest danger, getting out of the water is critical. When a person breaks through the ice, it is nearly impossible to get out on your own because of how slick the ice is, especially when water is on the ice. The use of an ice pick can help you with self-rescue techniques. If you are going on the ice, wear a PFD and tie off to a stable solid object on shore. This will be a life line for self-rescue. In the case of ice fishing, drill through the ice periodically on your way to your fishing spot. This will help you to know what areas are safe to walk on or if you should stay away from. Never go on ice without a buddy and let someone know where you are going, what you are doing and when you are expected to be home.

If an ice emergency occurs, throw something that may float to the person in trouble or use a long pole to extend to them. Ladders pushed out on the ice can be used so long as the intended rescuer does not get on the ice. Sometimes items like tree branches, garden hoses, small boats or ropes will be enough to provide the victim with self-rescue tools.

Never try and enter the water to rescue someone. Call 911 immediately and get help on the way. Let the trained professionals manage the emergency situations. Many times good Samaritans easily find themselves in the same trouble as the victim and become part of the problem. The Special Operations Chief of the Indianapolis Fire Department will be the first to say that a Good Samaritan is just as likely to drown as the person in danger, if a rescue attempt is not well planned and thought out. The Indianapolis Fire Department Dive Team trains in ice diving constantly and nearly every incident is different. Even though they have many hours of training, they are at risk of drowning themselves in ice dives. Most cities and counties in the northern United States have emergency response teams ready to handle ice water emergencies.

If a person is rescued from extremely cold water after a relatively short period of time, they have a better chance of survival because the body and brain tend to shut down when the head is exposed to cold water. This is called the "mammalian diving reflex". This lowers the heart rate and shuts the blood flow to the body’s extremities. This allows the blood to carry oxygen to the brain and other vital organs needed to keep a person alive. There have been several incidents of reviving a person due to the extremely cold water, even over an hour. Once the rescue is made, start resuscitation efforts immediately. This is normally CPR. Do not delay resuscitation.

When around frozen bodies of water, be careful and very aware of your surroundings, your life may depend on it.


  1. Gravatar for Nate

    There are a few teams like this across the country. Pennsylvania Reserve Corps has CERT team which is integrated with MRC/Firecorps

  2. Gravatar for Dalia

    A person recently died in North of Grand Island, Nebraska because he was ice fishing and the ice wasn't thick enough so we fell into the water and drowned.

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