Ice Rescue 101

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If you’ve visited certain parts of the North America in the winter, it’s a sure bet you’ve encountered cold temperatures and with it the formation of ice. As an avid outdoorsmen and lifelong Wisconsin resident, I find myself embracing cold weather and ice…at least until March. For those of us who serve in the emergency services, frozen bodies of water present a unique challenge. Frozen bodies of water create an unforgiving environment where coordination is key, and having the right plan is critical to a successful outcome.

What draws people to go onto frozen bodies of water, in the first place? There are numerous reasons like ice fishing, snowmobiling, or cross-country skiing, just to name a few. Some are bold enough to travel on frozen bodies of water with a vehicle.  Another common reason is curiosity. Finally, ditches along roadways have a habit of holding water which can freeze and create additional challenges when addressing motor vehicle incidents.

The first step in mitigating ice rescues and cold-water emergencies is knowing the area your department covers. Are there any bodies of water in your area of response or mutual aid response area? How difficult are these bodies of water to access? Will you be able to drive an apparatus right to the shoreline or will you have to hike a quarter of a mile through wooded, hilly terrain to access the scene? It’s a great idea to take some time and pre-plan these areas so you have an idea of how these bodies of water are being used, how to access them, and make note of ice conditions.  

It is common to hear the phrase “there is no such thing as safe ice”, when asking if a frozen body of water is safe to travel on.  I’ll take that notion a step further and say that all ice is dangerous due to its unpredictable thickness and quality. Further, all ice does not freeze in a consistent, uniform fashion. Simply stated, if you measure 8 inches of ice at one location on the lake, it’s presumptuous to think you’ll find 8” of ice everywhere on the lake. Ice is constantly at the mercy of things like melting, refreezing, erosion, pressure, weight, and water movement. People affect ice conditions due to recreational use. Some lakes have features like springs, inlets, outlets, or aeration systems which cause lakes to not freeze as solid as a backwater slough. Dirt and other pollutants in water interfere with the formation of ice crystals which in turn creates weaker ice than clear, clean water which creates stronger ice. Structures like docks, bridges, submerged vegetation, stumps, break walls, and other objects in ice act as heat sinks which can create weak ice around these items.

So, how does one determine how strong ice is? How much weight can it hold? There isn’t any fool-proof method with a guarantee for safety. However, I have found that using a load bearing formula serves me best when determining the strength of new, clear ice.

Example: 8” of clear ice


P=Load bearing capacity in pounds

50= constant

T=Thickness of NEW, CLEAR ice in inches



P=3200 lbs of load bearing capacity

Our biggest adversary when it comes to rescuing victims who have fallen into cold water is hypothermia. With the average core body temperature of a human being 98.6o F, a person can begin to experience pre-hypothermia with a drop in body temperature of less than 2o F. Hypothermia causes muscle weakness and loss of consciousness thus making rescues more difficulty for emergency responders. Those two factors can also lead to victims drowning. Depending on water temperature, a patient can experience exhaustion and unconsciousness in as much as 15 minutes. Again, time is not our ally. Hypothermia does not discriminate, either. If you venture out onto ice and into cold water to make a rescue without the proper thermal protection or floatation, you will soon experience the same problems the victim you’re attempting to save is, possibly making yourself the second victim. Ice can also be hard and sharp which can create traumatic injuries. Cold water can also mask those injuries.

How you respond as a department to a cold water rescue depends on your department’s staffing model. A staffing issue for some departments is whether fire and ems are together or two separate services. If there’s one thing I have made note of during my time as an ice rescue instructor, it’s that I see more fire staff at ice rescue trainings than EMS staff. Another observation I’ve made over the years is due to staffing, an ambulance requires less personnel to initiate response versus a fire apparatus. With those two notions in mind, I think it’s important that we encourage our EMS department members (and our local law enforcement) to get involved in ice rescue training. Again, time is not on our side. The quicker we can get the victim out of the water, the better chance there is for survival.

Another critical aspect of ice rescue is your scene size up. Making note of access points, how the victim got to where he or she did on the ice, are their multiple victims, how long the victim has been in the water, speaking with witnesses, and any potential hazards are all key points.  Environmental clues are another key element. Tracks in the snow or on the ice, open water, unattended equipment sitting on the ice or floating in open water are all clues that should create a high index of suspicion that someone may have fallen through the ice. It should also be understood that people who have been submerged for a period of time have been rescued and revived. In 2014, a Minnesota man was rescued and eventually revived in a hospital after being submerged in 10 feet of water for 25 minutes. With that in mind, just because the victim has gone below the water surface, does not mean we automatically go from rescue mode to recovery mode.  It should be noted that in cases where the victim is thought to be submerged, understand that water is typically clearer in winter than at any other time of the year and you may be able to see the victim in the water. That being said, stirring up the water will create visibility issues.  Cold temperatures cause people to dress in layers of clothing. Those layers trap air that will offer some level of buoyancy. While it may not keep their head above water, it may keep them floating just close enough to the surface to allow responders to grab the victim by hand or with the aid of a tool. The common method of any type of water rescue is the ‘Reach, Throw, Row, or Go’. The game remains the same when water freezes solid. If you can reach out to a victim with your hand or a tool, there is no reason to venture out on to the ice or into the water. If you are able to successfully throw a rescue line to an able victim, again there is no reason to venture out on to the ice or into the water. While ‘rowing’ to the victim may seem peculiar in this case, I have seen enough videos of successful rescues conducted by emergency personnel who have pushed a boat across ice to the victim and pulled the victim to safety. When all else fails, the ‘go rescue’, the act of actually getting into the water and retrieving the victim is our last resort. This is a dangerous activity which is why it is important to have good thermal protection and personal flotation, someone trained and proficient in the ‘Go’ rescue, and good shore-based operation.

Regarding equipment, I understand that not everyone has the money to purchase things like an airboat or fund a specialized, dedicated ice rescue team. Things like pike poles can be used for reaching and snaring victims. Ground ladders being laid on ice and used as a means to get closer to a victim can also be used. Firefighters have asked about using an aerial apparatus for a water rescue. Personally, I don’t recommend the use of an aerial for any water rescue for various reasons.  However, if you want to be safer, and increase your chances of being successful, having a well equipped ice rescue team is the best way to go. That being said, there are some things you need to have. Ice rescue suits like the Mustang Ice Commander or First Watch RS-1000 offer floatation and thermal protection. Water rescue ropes, PFD’s, throw bags, and victim retrieval slings are ‘must have’ pieces of equipment. If your department has the funds, a water rescue craft like Oceanid’s RDC is a versatile tool that is worth the investment.

As with anything we do in the fire service, we must become proficient at our craft in order to be successful. In order to be proficient, we must train. FACT. If you are new to the ‘cold water rescue game’, thinking you can just put an ice rescue suit on and swim out to save someone is foolish. Proper training leads to more successful rescues. There’s a method and technique to this, as well as some pertinent EMS material involved. Seek a reputable instructor who abides by the parameters of NFPA 1670. Might I also suggest you seek out a ‘train the trainer’ program and become an instructor so you’re able to share that knowledge to your department and your neighbors. Also, don’t wait until you have ‘good ice’ to train. Sure, having 15” of solid, smooth ice makes for great training grounds, but more often than not, it’s not what we face when the real thing happens. People don’t fall through ‘good ice’. It’s the ‘bad ice’ you must worry about. So, I advocate training on thin ice. Spend some of your training hours throwing water rescue lines in the apparatus bay and practicing your rescue loop exchanges. Get together with your EMS partners and brush up on your hypothermia protocols. Get your neighboring departments involved, as well. An ice water rescue has numerous parallels to RIT operations as it will involve multiple resources. It’s good to have your mutual aid partners ‘in the loop’. Invite your local media and community leaders out to observe a training night, as well. I can tell you from first hand experience that ice rescue training can attract a crowd so it’s another great PR opportunity.

With all this in mind, understand that getting your department heads and community leaders on board with the idea of ice rescue can be an uphill battle but will be worth it in the end. Adding a new, unique skill set to your ‘tool box’ is always a great idea. In today’s day and age of budget cuts and ‘short staffing’, the more you know, the more of an asset you can be to your department, which in turns adds more value to your department and the services it offers to your communities.


B J. Breecher – With 11 years of experience, I currently work as a career firefighter/AEMT/MPO for Deforest-Windsor Fire and EMS in Deforest, WI and part-time as a firefighter/EMT for the City of Verona in Verona, WI. One of my favorite topics, I’ve been teaching ice rescue as a Ice Rescue Instructor (NFPA 1670) since 2009. In my down time, I love to hunt, fish, stay fit, and choose ‘the truck’ over the engine, every time. EVERY…TIME.

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