Beware, The Hazards of Ice!

TWO BOYS, age 11, are ice skating at a local pond. Suddenly, the ice cracks and one boy falls through into 34 degree Fahrenheit water. His friend runs to his aid, and potential tragedy grows as the second boy is pulled into the ice cold water by the panic stricken child already in the water. Unless help is immediately available, both boys will perish within a few minutes, either from drowning or hypothermia (decreased body temperature).

This tragic scenario is seen each winter across the country. Such needless deaths occur through recklessness, carelessness, or ignorance regarding proper locations for skating or ice fishing, the lack of safety precautions by people engaged in these activities, and improper rescue procedures used by good samaritans for someone who has fallen through the ice.


Ice strength depends upon thickness, snow cover, changes in temperature, depth of the water under the ice, water flow (current), and water level. Schools of fish under the ice, or a congregation of birds on the ice, will also affect the integrity of the ice. The following principles should be adhered to at all ponds and lakes where ice skating or ice fishing activities take place.

Ice clouded with air bubbles should be avoided. Although it may appear as solid ice, this ice is typically weak!. Ice must freeze to a uniform depth of at least four inches before it is firm enough for group skating or ice fishing.

Skaters and others should not go near partially submerged obstacles such as stumps and rocks where ice is weaker, and these dangerous areas should be clearly identified and avoided.

Ice over moving water is probably unsafe and should be avoided.

Ice should be examined for man-made hazards such as where ice has broken or been cut, and these hazards should be clearly identified.

Never permit skating or ice fishing alone. Adults should constantly supervise children skating, and skating should occur within a restricted area, preferably over shallow water.


When a person falls through the ice, he or she should not attempt to climb out immediately, but rather, should kick to the surface and get horizontal in the water. Remain in a horizontal position to avoid jackknifing your legs under the ice. Once the body is horizontal, the person should attempt to slide forward onto the ice. Once out of the water, the person should avoid standing near the broken ice. Instead, roll away from the break area until you are several body lengths away from the ice break.

A set of ice picks are ideal for use by rescuers and victims alike. The ice picks consist of a foam-filled plastic shafts with retractable sheaths that cover a metal ice pick. When the ice pick is jammed down onto the ice, the retractable sheath exposes the pick which allows the would-be rescuer to crawl out to the victim, or the victim the opportunity to crawl and pick his way out of the ice hole onto solid ice.

The safest approach to try to rescue a victim who has fallen through the ice is to attempt a shore-based rescue, without putting yourself in danger. Reach, throw something, or extend something from shore while keeping yourself on shore and off the ice or away from the ice break. A tree limb, hockey stick, or battery jumper cables can be extended to the victim. Or, if a rope is available, coil the line and throw the line to the victim while maintaining hold on the end of the line. A water cooler or spare tire with a line attached can provide excellent floatation for the victim.

While shore-based rescue attempts are being made, 911 should be called to alert First Responders.

A flat-bottomed boat, canoe or kayak also serves as excellent means to effect an ice rescue. These craft can easily be slid along the ice until contact is made with the victim. If the ice breaks under the boat or rescuers, they have a good rescue platform to continue the rescue or retreat to the safety of the shoreline. Whenever possible, the boat should be tethered with a safety line to shore.

Where no regular or improvised rescue devices are available, it may be necessary to form a human chain to effect a rescue. To form this chain, several rescuers approach from shore by leap-frogging ahead of the previous rescuer to get as close as they can within safety and then lie prone upon the ice, forming a chain. Each person holds tightly to the persons’ ankles or skates ahead of him. When the lead person grasps the victim, the person nearest shore pulls the others back. If the ice breaks under the weight of the leading person in the chain, the individual can be held and drawn to safety by the others.

Victims of skating and other ice accidents may require emergency resuscitation procedures which need to be administered immediately while the victim is moved to a shelter. When the victim is brought to shore breathing, the rescuers should warm the victim as rapidly as possible. Bring the victim indoors, remove wet clothing, and wrap the victim’s trunk in blankets until it is possible to immerse the person in warm water (95 – 101 degrees Fahrenheit). During the rewarming process, avoid rewarming the extremities until the core temperature is back to normal. The victim should also be examined by a physician.


When venturing out onto the ice for ice fishing, skating, snowmobiling, etc. we recommend wearing a float coat. These coats are designed to provide thermal insulation from the cold and wind, and they have inherent buoyancy to keep you at the water’s surface should you fall through the ice. Float coats are Coast Guard approved as Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs) or Lifejackets.

Carry a pea-less plastic whistle that can be used to signal for help during an emergency. The pea-less design allows the whistle to work, even after being fully submerged in the water. And, the plastic construction will prevent tissue injury to your lips and tongue when using it.

Also carry a set if ice picks and be sure they are kept in a pocket where you can gain immediate access to them without removing your gloves.

Ice skating and ice fishing areas should be uniformly marked in order to identify approved areas with good conditions as well as restricted or prohibited areas. One means of identification is the use of colored flags using green for skating/ice fishing allowed; yellow for restricted areas; and red for no skating/ice fishing. When flags are used, a key should be provided on a sign explaining the color system. Another method would use universal signage graphics depicting a skater for skating allowed, and the same sign with a slash through it for no skating.

If recreation supervisors are assigned to skating facilities, they should be trained and certified in emergency first aid and CPR. In addition, appropriate first aid and resuscitation equipment should be available. If skating lakes or ponds are established by a municipality, with supervision provided by staff, these persons should have appropriate ice rescue training and should be equipped with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and rescue equipment (reaching and throwing devices, and communications for contacting a 911 dispatcher).

First Responder agencies and their personnel should be trained and equipped for ice rescues. The Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) should conduct a Threat Assessment within his/her jurisdiction to determine the areas where the public may engage in activities on or near the ice. The AHJ must then determine the level of operational capability required, dependent upon that Threat Assessment. And, the AHJ must then PLAN for, TRAIN for, and acquire the RESOURCES required to safely and effectively MANAGE incidents on and through the ice.

Lastly, keep pets under control and off the ice. A large percentage of ice-related emergencies each year occur because pets fall through the ice and the incident escalates when the owners or good samaritans attempt to rescue the pet. In many cases, the animal survives, but the people do not.


With such safety precautions in place, the public is assured essentially safe skating, fishing and other recreational opportunities and tragedies are prevented.

For more information on ice safety and rescue, please see the Lifesaving Resources’ Ice Safety and Rescue Public Service Announcement at

For information on Ice Rescue training programs for First Responders, please access the Lifesaving Resources’ website at, or call 207/967-8614.

Print Article