Ice Safety: what to do if you go through

Ice Safety: what to do if you go through
Minneapolis Fire Department firefighters present an ice safety demonstration to a group of parents and children at the Lyndale Farmstead Park ice rink. Pictured from left to right are FMO Dean Anderson (kneeling), Capt. Dennis Scott, and Firefighters Pete Hallstrom and Shane Thorn. 

In early February, Minneapolis Fire Department firefighters demonstrated ice safety to a group of parents and children at the Lyndale Farmstead Park ice rink.  In near zero temperatures the firefighters showed what to do if someone falls through the ice. Their message: Ice Is Never Safe.

But now that spring is here and temperatures are warmer ice safety is even more important.  If you chose to venture out on to ice here are steps to protect yourself.

Ice Awareness

Be aware of ice conditions and where thin ice might occur. The strength of ice cannot be judged by looking at it. Ice strength and thickness are determined by a number of factors.

The depth and the size of a body of water affect the temperature of the water and ice stability. Deep water remains colder longer and preserves the ice while water in shallower areas warms up faster, weakening and melting the ice.

Water currents also weaken ice. Moving water slows ice formation in the winter and speeds thawing in the spring. Places to avoid are streams or drainage outlets that enter into or out of the lake or pond. Other areas to avoid include channels between lakes and beneath bridges. In addition, some lakes are fed by underwater springs. These springs, which can occur away from the shore, feed warmer water into the lake. This water rises and weakens the ice from below.

Be Prepared

There are four things that you can do to be prepared before going out on the ice.

Clothing and non-slip boots are important. Dress in three layers for warmth. If you do go into the water these layers will hold water close to your body where it is warmed. This warmer layer of water temporarily protects you from hypothermia by slowing the cooling of your body.

Hypothermia occurs when your body cools down to the point that bodily functions slow and stop. This results in physical weakness, muscles cramping, extreme fatigue and eventual unconsciousness which can lead to death either from hypothermia or drowning.

A personal floatation device is a good idea. Whether in a boat or walking on the ice, it is the same body of water with a threat of drowning.

Weather and ice awareness is a must. The upper Midwest is notorious for rapidly changing weather which means changing ice conditions.  Local television stations as well as online sites, such as ones for fishermen, can provide some information about weather and ice. Other sources for information are local resort or bait shop operators. They know the areas that are traditionally dangerous as well as the most recent experiences on the ice. Lastly, check to see if there are any warning signs or notices before you venture out.

Have an emergency plan. Having a plan prepares you for action. Begin by telling someone that you are going out on the ice and your anticipated return. If with friends, discuss the plan and be certain that you are all familiar with ice safety procedures. Carrying a rope, ice picks and a floatation device is a good idea.

20140208-01-014-3_LesPhillipsMFD Firefighter, Pete Hallstrom shows skaters how to crawl out of a hole in the ice.










What To Do If You Go Through

You hear the ice crack and instantly you are in frigid water.

  • Stay calm and remember your plan. You do have a little time to act.
    Your body cools quickly because water carries heat away 25 times faster than air. As you chill your thinking and response times slow. In 32° F water an unprotected person begins to feel stiff and clumsy within two minutes. Next comes the feeling of exhaustion and within 15 minutes unconsciousness. After that, you have approximately 15 to 45 minutes before death. [i]
  • Try to catch yourself by extending your arms.
    Your outstretched arms will also slow your sinking.
  • Kick your feet to stay afloat.
  • Turn towards the direction that you came from.
  • Spread your arms out in front of you on the solid ice.
    This spreads your weight out over the ice.
  • Attempt to get out of the water.
    If you carry ice picks use them to pull yourself out of the water and onto the ice. Steadily kick your feet while getting out. If you can’t get out, place your outstretched arms on the ice and stop struggling. Your arms on the ice will help you stay afloat while minimizing movement conserves body heat.
  • Once on the ice, do not stand up but roll away from the hole.
    Lie flat and spread out your weight. The ice around the hole may not be strong enough to hold you standing.
  • Get off the ice as safely as you can.
  • Warm yourself immediately.
    Keep wearing your wet clothes until you have dry clothes and a warm shelter.
  • Seek medical attention.
    Falling into icy water can cause shock and other serious conditions.

What To Do If It’s Not You

  • STOP. Do not run up to the hole.
    You can’t help if you become another victim.
  • Call 911.
    This is a dangerous situation and professional help is needed.
  • Instruct and calm the person in the water.
    Explain the self-rescue technique as described above. In the excitement of the moment, it may be necessary to shout at the victim to get and hold his attention. Reassure him that you are with him and that help is on the way.
  • Attempt a safe rescue.
    Keeping your distance from the hole, extend something towards the victim, such as a belt, rope, ladder, rescue board, or jumper cables. If the victim starts to pull you in, release your hold and try again. If the victim is too far away, try to throw a rope or floatation device to him. Instruct the victim to either tie the rope around his body or put on the floatation device immediately, before he is too weak and stiff to do so.  When throwing the end of a rope to the victim, aim to throw it past him so that it lies within close reach. This makes it easier for the victim to grab the rope and wrap it around him.
  • If there is a boat available, push it in front of you up to the hole. Get in the boat and pull the victim over the bow. If there is a rope tie it to the boat so that others can pull the boat with you and the victim back to safety.
  • Get off the ice safely, keep the victim warm, seek medical treatment immediately.

Falling through the ice is serious but if you stay calm and know what to do, it need not be fatal.

This article was prompted by the recent death of a man who fell through the ice of a Burnsville pond[2].

[i] Kevin Monahan, Capt. The Chilling Truth About Cold Water. Shipwrite Productions.

[2] Paul Walsh. Authorities ID ‘big man’ who broke through ice on Burnsville pond, died. Star Tribune.  04/02/2014.

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