Rescue team captain has tips 
for surviving a fall through ice

Rescue team captain has tips 
for surviving a fall through ice

Capt. Robert Shields is a 27-year veteran of the Cumberland Rescue Service and the team coordinator for the Cumberland Water Rescue and Recovery Team.

It’s once again the time of year when ice is forming on local ponds, lakes, and rivers. It’s also the time of year when the most rescues take place, along with in the early spring, when ice has not completely formed or is melting and not safe.

The Cumberland Water Rescue and Recovery Team and the Cumberland Rescue Service are offering tips on ice safety.

For ice to form, temperatures must remain consistently below freezing –32 degrees – for more than one week. Any fluctuations in temperature will cause the ice to be weak.

Other factors that can lead to weak ice are:

• Snow creating an insulating blanket that inhibits ice formation.

• Water moving in currents.

• Wind preventing ice from forming in open areas except for a thin unsafe layer that hides the open area.

• Water fowl and fish disturbing the water’s surface.

• Partially submerged objects like rocks or logs attracting sunlight that heats the object and melts the ice around it.

Safe ice is defined as new, clear ice. Four inches is the minimum recommended thickness that will support the weight of a person.

Other recommendations for minimum ice thickness are 6 inches for a snowmobile or ATV, 8 to 12 inches for cars and 12 to 16 inches for light trucks.

If someone falls through the ice, do not attempt a rescue. Immediately call 911. You can help by keeping an eye on the victim and trying to keep him calm. Any excessive movement in cold water will increase heat loss and speed up the onset of hypothermia.

If you attempt a rescue, do it from the safety of shore. Extend an object to the victim like a branch or ladder and pull them from the hole. If the person is beyond reach, throw a rope, extension cord, or jumper cables to them and pull them free. Again, do not go onto the ice to effect a rescue.

If you know you are going through the ice, cover your face with your hand. This prevents you from inhaling water when your face immerses. Once in the water, it may take about one to two minutes to control your breathing but you need to remain calm and still. Swim or float to the spot where you fell in from; this will be safer ice to escape onto. Once at the ice shelf, extend your arms onto the ice and allow your legs to float up behind you. Next, kick your legs and using your forearm, pull yourself up and onto the ice shelf.

Once on the ice, roll away from the hole. This distributes your weight to prevent the ice from breaking. When you are at least 10 feet from the hole, crawl on your hands and knees to the shore and get dry and warm. If you cannot get out, try to get as much of your body onto the ice and remain still. The longer you are in the water, the weaker you will become and may go unconscious within 45 minutes to an hour. If you remain still, this allows clothing to freeze to the ice preventing you from slipping under the water.

Ice picks and a whistle are recommended for anyone going on the ice. The picks will aid in self rescue, and the whistle is used to signal others that you are in trouble. Make sure the whistle is pea-less and plastic; metal whistles can stick to lips when cold.

If your pet or another animal goes through the ice, again do not attempt to rescue them. If the ice cannot support them, it will not support you. Immediately call 911, and let professional rescuers save your pet.

Remember if you decide to venture onto the ice, do not go alone and let someone know what you will be doing and where you are going. The R.I. Department of Environmental Management has an ice safety hotline, 401-667-6222. This will give ice thickness updates in three areas of the state and let you know if any ice is safe.

Remember, no ice is safe ice, and the only safe ice is at a skating rink.

- Capt. Robert Shields, who provided this safety information, is a 27-year veteran of the Cumberland Rescue Service and is the team coordinator for the Cumberland Water Rescue and Recovery Team. He is a certified ice rescue instructor, water rescue instructor, and swiftwater rescue instructor for Lifesaving Resources LLC of Kennebunkport, Maine. He is also a certified public safety diver and ice diver as well as a PADI Divemaster.