Ice Rescue

The Preparation and Training of Public Safety and Rescue Personnel to Respond to Ice and Cold Water Emergencies

by Gerald M. Dworkin
October 22, 2000


Case Study #1: March 14, 2000. Ralph Johnson, a 72-year-old male and avid fisherman, purchased his daily permit from the local bait shop and drove out to the lake for a day of ice fishing with his friend. Ralph arrived at the lake at 8:30 AM and planned on staying on the ice through lunch. It was a bright sunny day, with temperatures around 30 degrees F.

At around 12:30 PM, after spending the morning on the ice with no success, his friend decided to pack it in for the day, since it was getting warmer out and the ice was getting slushy. Ralph told his friend he was planning on staying another 2 hours.

At approximately 2 PM, with the temperature getting warmer and the ice even more slushy, Ralph decided to head for home. He picked up all his gear and attempted to make his way to shore, approximately 125 yards away. As he was making his way, he had to change course several times because of apparent holes or cracks in the ice. When he was within 25 yards of shore, he fell through the ice into the frigid water. He struggled, unsuccessfully, to climb out of the water and back onto the ice. Every time he climbed onto the ice ledge, it cracked under his weight sending him back into the water. Ralph finally succumbed as a result of his exhaustion and hypothermia and submerged below the surface of the water.

Another fisherman on shore observed the last few minutes of Ralph’s struggle and called 9-1-1 on his cell phone. When Fire and Rescue personnel responded and arrived on the scene, they observed a 70’ trail of broken ice caused by Ralph’s attempts to climb out of the ice and make his way to safety. Since the Fire Department had no training or equipment to deal with Cold Water or Ice Emergencies, they stood-by along the shoreline until the state SCUBA team arrived an hour and half later. The SCUBA team was able to proximate the location of the victim, based on witness statements, and were able to recover his body within 6 minutes of entering the water. Ralph was found in 7’ of water.

Threat Analysis and Pre-Incident Management Planning

In most modern day Fire and Rescue Departments, target hazards receive a high priority in the pre-incident management process and often a higher level of first-alarm response assignment. The designation of a structure or occupancy as a target hazard is determined after a thorough inspection of the structure. It is then the duty and responsibility of the department to pre-plan the firefighting tactics and strategies or other emergency activities that can be anticipated to occur at a particular location. (According to the Firefighter’s Handbook, published by Delmar, a Target Hazard can be defined as an “occupancy or structure that has been determined to have a greater than average life hazard or as a structure that presents a greater degree of complexity of firefighting operations”).

This concept of identifying target hazards and the development of pre-plans to manage the incident should be expanded to include not only occupancies and physical structures, but also attractive nuisances within a community including lakes, rivers, streams, and other bodies of water, which can pose a danger to the public engaged in recreational activities in, on and around the water or ice. This process of identifying physical hazards as well as activities which place persons at risk is referred to as Threat Analysis.

As part of any comprehensive risk management program, it is the duty and responsibility of the facility owner, operator or manager to eliminate danger at his/her facility by removing or warning persons of the physical hazards; and by prohibiting or safeguarding activities which place persons at risk. It is the combination of physical hazards and behavioral risks which constitute danger. However, within the natural environment, there are many attractions which do not come under the management responsibilities of any particular agency or individual. Therefore, local Public Safety and Rescue agencies should perform this threat analysis within their communities in order to determine potential incident sites and to develop pre-plans for those sites.

Forming an Ice Rescue Team

Once the threat analysis has been performed within the local community, and the potential for water or ice rescue incidents is identified, then it is the responsibility of the Fire and Rescue department to (A) develop pre-incident management plans for every potential site; (B) develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to implement these plans; and (C) train and equip their personnel to respond appropriately.

Some large Fire and Rescue departments have the capability, due to their personnel and equipment resources, to develop technical or specialized rescue teams. In such cases, the formation, training, and equipping of an Ice Rescue Team can be done. However, most smaller departments do not have the equipment or personnel resources to train and select a specialized team. Therefore, generalized awareness training must be provided for all personnel and Technician level training provided for as many personnel as possible. At the very least, Ice Rescue Awareness training should be provided to all personnel which would include the development and implementation of:

  • Procedures for implementing the assessment phase of the ice incident;
  • Procedures for size-up of existing and potential conditions;
  • Procedures for the identification of the resources necessary to conduct safe and effective ice rescue operations;
  • Procedures for implementing the emergency response system for ice rescue incidents;
  • Procedures for implementing site control and scene management;
  • Procedures for recognition of general hazards associated with ice incidents and the procedures necessary to mitigate these hazards within the general rescue area;
  • Procedures for recognition of general hazards associated with ice incidents and the procedures necessary to mitigate these hazards within the general rescue area;
  • Procedures to determine rescue vs. body recovery.

Fire and Rescue personnel trained at the awareness level should also be trained in procedures to identify the approximate location of a victim once the victim has submerged below the surface, and they should be capable of manning tether lines for operations level personnel who venture out onto the ice or into the water for rescue or recovery purposes. Awareness level personnel can also be trained and equipped to perform basic shore-based rescues like throwing a line or rescue bag to the victim, or extending an object or device from shore. However, to function in this capacity, fire and rescue personnel must be equipped with basic rescue and survival equipment and must be trained in its proper use.

At the Ice Rescue Technician level, personnel would have the responsibility of organizing and implementing the type of rescue necessary depending upon the condition of the patient, the equipment available, the location of the victim, etc. Technician level functions at ice rescue incidents must include the development and implementation of:

  • Procedures for self-rescue unique to ice rescue;
  • Procedures for reach, throw, row and go technique rescues unique to ice rescue;
  • Procedures for the use of watercraft, specialty craft, and specialty equipment unique to ice rescue.

Again, in order to accomplish this level of rescue, Technician level personnel must be adequately equipped to protect them from the elements and to carry-out the rescue.

Ice Rescue/Cold Water Rescue Equipment

All personnel operating at the Awareness level should be provided with appropriate Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) or Anti-Exposure Coveralls to protect them from the elements and any unintentional entries into the cold water. They can also be trained in the use and have available certain shore-based rescue equipment including rescue throw bags, heaving lines, or specialty equipment such as the Rescue Retriever.

The following is a description of equipment suitable for use by Awareness level rescue personnel for shore-based rescues:

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)
PFDs are approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and are classified into 5 types. Type I and Type II PFDs are not suitable for use by rescue personnel as wearable devices as they are cumbersome and reduce mobility by the wearer. Type III PFDs come in a variety of designs and intended purposes and are the most suitable for use by rescue personnel. A Type IV is a throwable device. A throwable device may be appropriate for use to slide along the ice to a victim in the water. A Type V PFD is a special-use PFD or an inflatable PFD.

Rescue Retriever
The Rescue Retriever is a compact and portable rescue system engineered to be operated from a safe area, enabling the rescue procedure to be carried out from over 100 feet away, thus minimizing the risk to the rescuer. It is comprised of a 100’ fiberglass covered cable with a flotation extension and a rescue loop. The rescuer from shore maneuvers the rescue loop over the victim and then pulls the victim in to safety.

Rescue Throw Bag
Rescue throw bags should have a minimum of 75’ of 5/16″ or 3/8″ line stuffed inside a bag. The rescuer holds one end of the line and throws the bag to the victim. The line deploys out of the bag when the bag is thrown.

Rescue Ring
The rescue ring can be slid along the ice to a victim in the water. It is designed to close around the victim when tension is applied to the lifting ring. This product is significantly superior to a regular ring buoy when rescuing weak or unconscious victims.

The following is a description of equipment suitable for use by Technician level rescue personnel for “go” rescues, both on the ice and in the water:

Cold Water/Ice Rescue Suits or Dry Suits
These are one-piece heavy neopreme rubber suits designed for fast and easy donning. Suits have integrated five-fingered gloves, a hood, and rigid-sole boots. Other features include reinforced knee and elbow pads and an integral chest/back harness for attaching tether lines. These suits are designed to keep the wearer warm, afloat and dry in cold water. Dry Suits on the other hand are only designed to keep the wearer dry. When using dry suits, the rescuer must wear an underlying of fleece for warmth, and a PFD over the dry suit for buoyancy.

Ice Awls
Commercial ice awls can be purchased or rescuers can make their own. These devices are excellent for assisting the rescuer to pull himself across the ice to the victim and are especially useful for self-rescue should the rescuer fall through the ice. The commercial ice awls are constructed of a plastic shaft, a plastic retractable sheath, and a metal pick. When the ice awl is driven onto the ice, the sheath retracts exposing the metal pick.

Inflatable PFDs
Once the rescuer makes contact with the victim, he/she can deploy his inflatable PFD to provide an additional 25 — 35 lbs. of buoyancy.

Ice Cleats
Ice cleats are excellent to be fitted over boots to provide additional traction for rescue personnel while walking on ice and snow.

Water Rescue Rope and Bag
The length of rope required depends on the location, but a floating line designed for use in the water and stuffed inside a standard rope bag should be available to attach to rescue personnel before they venture out onto the ice to attempt a rescue. Once the rescuer contacts the victim, rescuers on shore would pull the victim and rescuer back to shore using the tether line.

Rescue Buoy or Sling
Whenever possible, the rescuer should always try to keep some type of buoyant device between himself and the victim. The device should also assist the rescuer in maintaining a firm grasp on the victim while they are being pulled into shore. A flexible Rescue Tube or a buoyant sling is suitable. The rescuer can also use 1″ webbing to secure around the victim.

Roof or Extension Ladder
A standard roof ladder is ideal for assisting the rescuer to distribute his weight across the ice and to serve as an extension device to extend to the victim in the water. Depending on the depth of the water, one end of the ladder can also be dropped into the water as an aid for the rescue personnel and victim to climb out of the water.

Basket Stretcher with Flotation Collar
Most fire departments have basket stretchers within their rescue equipment inventory. We recommend attaching a backboard inside the basket stretcher and securing a flotation collar to the upper half of the basket. This allows the foot of the basket to be sunk below the victim and the victim can then be slid into the basket stretcher. The rescuer(s) use the basket stretcher to help equalize and distribute their weight across the ice as they approach the victim. If the rescuer falls through the ice, he/she then has a buoyant platform for safety. When the victim needs to be removed from the basket, the backboard is removed with the patient on the backboard.

Pike Pole
A standard pike pole can also be used to help the rescuer distribute his weight across the ice while approaching the victim. When within reach of the victim, the rescuer can use the pike pole to snag the victim to pull the victim out of the water. If the victim is submerged, the pike pole can be used to attempt to locate and snag the victim from the bottom or just under the sheet ice layer.

Inflatable Hose
An end cap is attached to one end of 2 1/2″ hose while an end cap with an air chuck valve tapped into it is attached to the other end. The hose is inflated to approximately 100 psi. This makes an excellent buoyant device for rescuer personnel and the victim. The hose can also be wrapped around a 14’ roof ladder which makes an excellent flotation platform.

Rescue Boat
Any type of flat-bottom boat is suitable for use on the ice to help distribute the weight of the rescuer and victim, and to serve as a buoyant platform should the rescuer fall through the ice. Boats are also excellent to progress through open water. The Oceanid Fortuna is an excellent inflatable boat in that it has an opening on both ends (front and back) of the boat. The rescuer can slide the Fortuna across the ice or paddle it using a canoe or kayak paddle in open water. One end of the Fortuna is placed directly over the victim and the victim is then pulled up and onto the inflatable platform deck of the device. In lieu of a flat bottom boat, any canoe or kayak can also be used as well.

Rescue Sled
A variety of commercial sleds (Lifesaver Ice Rescue Sled or Rescue Alive) are available. They provide a stable platform on the ice and in the water. However, if the rescuer needs to progress through open water, the use of sleds.

Paddle/Surf Boards
A paddle or surf board helps the rescuer distribute his weight across the ice. Should the ice break, the board provides an excellent flotation platform for the rescue and the victim. The board can also be used to progress through open water if necessary.

Line Deploying Guns/Rockets
Line deploying guns are excellent to deploy lines for technical water and ice rescue. If concurrent rescue methods are attempted, the line gun provides one means by which to coordinate efforts allowing for one team to tether to the other team to assist in their progress toward the victim. The Rescue Rocket is an excellent device which is charged using air from high pressure SCBA bottles and is capable of deploying approximately 450’ of a small diameter dacron line, or 300’ of a larger diameter polypropelene line.

With the use of any equipment, both the rescuer and the equipment should be tethered and manned by shore-based rescue personnel. At no time should the tether lines ever be attached to a vehicle!

Training Requirements and How To Conduct Training Drills

There are a number of Water Rescue and Ice Rescue training programs conducted throughout the U.S. for Public Safety and Rescue organizations and their personnel. But, training should also be conducted as part of a department’s normal in-service training program. Rescue personnel need to be able to size-up a scene and determine the equipment and personnel resources required to effect a safe and successful rescue or body recovery attempt. Equipment must be in good condition and always at the ready. SOPs must be in place and personnel must be familiar with the pre-established pre-plans to respond appropriately. Firefighters must have a comprehensive knowledge of the personnel and equipment resources and the determination must be made quickly whether or not the resources are immediately available to respond to the incident. If they are not, then additional resources must be obtained rapidly through mutual aid or other resources.

Just as Firefighters practice donning personal protective equipment and SCBA equipment for fighting structure fires, Ice Rescue personnel must also be competent in donning their Cold Water/Ice Rescue Suits, and they must be competent in their self-rescue skills to extricate themselves from the water should a rescuer fall through the ice.

Rescue personnel must be knowledgeable about the dangers of Torso Reflex and must know how to instantly react to prevent this occurrence should they suddenly find themselves immersed in cold water. (Torso reflex is a reaction caused by the gasp reflex when cold water hits a person’s face or chest. If the rescuer’s mouth and nose are not protected during the gasp reflex, they will aspirate cold water into their airway which can cause a laryngospasm resulting in respiratory arrest).

At the minimum, Technician level personnel should be competent in basic rescue and survival skills to include:

  • Crawling out on the ice to a victim
  • The use of ice awls or picks
  • Prevention of Torso Reflex during Sudden Immersion
  • Self-rescue
  • Solo Rescue
  • Solo Rescue with Buoyant Aid
  • Solo Rescue with Fast Sling
  • Basket Stretcher Rescue
  • Ladder Rescue
  • Pike Pole Rescue

And, if specialized equipment has been purchased, personnel must obviously be competent in the maintenance and use of this equipment.

An Overview of Hazards Associated with Ice Rescue and Precautions Rescuers Should Take

In addition to rescue procedures and skills, a great deal of emphasis must be placed on self-rescue and survival procedures in cold water. If a department is dispatched to a scene where someone has fallen through the ice, it is obvious that the condition of the ice has been compromised and the danger of others being exposed to the cold water conditions is always a threat.

Cold water will rob the body of heat 25 — 30 times faster than in air. Once a person is immersed in cold water, his arms and legs become numb and useless in a very short period of time. Therefore, unless properly protected in a cold water immersion or dry suit, the ability of a victim to assist in his/her own rescue is extremely limited.

If shore-based rescue attempts are made, rescue personnel must be aware that the victim may not be able to grab onto anything extended or thrown to him. Therefore, rescue personnel must consider the victim as a passive victim. If rescue throw bags or heaving lines are tossed to the victim, the victim most likely will not be able to grab onto the line in order to be pulled from the water. But rather, the victim must be instructed to twist or wrap himself with the line before the attempt is made to pull the line and victim to shore. If shore-based rescuers attempt to extend something to the victim, that device will have to snag or loop over the victim since the victim will not be able to grab onto the device.

Rescue personnel crawling out over the ice must realize the strength and integrity of the ice has already been compromised and always presents the chance of cracking or breaking under the weight of the rescuer and his equipment. Should the ice give way, as the rescuer falls into the cold water, he must make a conscious effort to protect his airway by covering his mouth and nose with one hand in order to prevent him from gasping and aspirating cold water into his mouth and nose.

Once the rescuer makes contact with the victim, shore-based rescuers manning tether lines must be extremely cautious when pulling the rescuer and victim back to shore so as to not cause additional injury to the victim or the rescuer due to the ice ledge or obstructions on the ice.

Rescue personnel must be cognizant of the conditions of the water in terms of depth, currents, clarity, etc. If, upon arrival on the scene, the victim can no longer be seen at the surface of the water, attempts must be made to search horizontally under the ice sheet using a pike pole, as well as to probe along the bottom. Typically, if the victim was struggling next to the ice ledge, he will be found directly below the ledge, unless there are currents. If a child is missing, one technique which can be used to approximate the movement of the child through the water due to currents, is to place one or several bags of potatoes or onions, with a flashlight or lightstick attached, into the water and watch the movement of the bag. Wherever the bag stops is a good indication of where the child might be found.

Public Education

In order to prevent ice and cold-water related incidents, Public Safety and Rescue agencies should play an active role in public education. Ice skaters, snowmobilers, ice fishing enthusiasts, etc. should learn about the dangers of ice and should be aware of the contributing risk factors which contribute to ice incidents. These risk factors include alcohol consumption, poor ice conditions, excessive snowmobile speed, poor visibility or light conditions, etc. They should be aware of the characteristics of ice including information on ice formation and factors which affect ice strength.

Ice thickness is only one of the many factors that determine the strength of ice. Ice thickness and its strength should be checked in several places before venturing onto the ice and the strength of the ice should never be judged by its appearance alone. Ice is never 100% safe and should never be considered safe or strong enough to walk, play or travel on safely. There is always a risk involved every time you venture onto the ice.

The following principles should be adhered to at all ponds and lakes where recreational activities take place on the ice:

  • 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.
  • Clear, solid ice uniformly at least two inches thick is usually sufficient to hold a single person walking on foot. Ice fishing requires at least four inches of ice. Snowmobiling requires five inches. Automobilies and light trucks require at least eight inches to a foot of ice.

Case Study #2

“Engine 15, Rescue 15, Engine 8, Rescue 8, Ambulance 20, Medic 9, respond to Harrisville Pond for a report of two children through the ice across from the Library.”

On arrival, Engine 15 establishes command and assesses the incident scene. Two children are observed hanging onto the ice ledge approximately 35 yards out from shore in the middle of the pond. The OIC decides that concurrent rescue efforts will be made from two sides of the pond. Engine 8 and Rescue 8 are directed to the other side of the pond while Ambulance 20 and Medic 9 prepare to receive the victims.

Two crew members of Rescue 15 quickly don Cold Water/Ice Rescue Suits while the crew of Engine 15 attaches tether lines and prepares the basket stretcher. On the opposite bank, the crew of Rescue 8 don their suits as the crew of Engine 8 prepares to launch their ice rescue boat. Engine 15 then fires a line, using the Rescue Rocket, across the lake to Engine 8. The line is then attached to both teams in order to use the line to pull themselves toward the children.

Rescue 15 progresses toward the children sliding the basket stretcher across the ice. The two rescuers stay 5 yards apart in order to reduce the load on the compromised ice.

Rescue 8 progresses toward the children from the opposite bank by sliding the boat across the ice. But, because of the additional weight of the boat, they have a difficult time as the boat keeps breaking through the ice. Although Rescue 8 is now dead in the water, they are able to assist Rescue 15 by pulling the deployed line from the rescue rocket which pulls the rescuers closer to the children.

Within minutes, the Rescue 15 grabs the children and places them in the basket stretcher. The crew of Engine 15 pulls the basket stretcher and rescuers back to safety using the shore-based tether lines. The patients are then turned over to Ambulance 20 and Medic 9 for EMS intervention.


All Public Safety and Rescue personnel should be educated in the principles and procedures of Aquatics Safety and Water Rescue, including Cold Water Rescue and Survival. Additionally, ice rescue training should be provided to rescue personnel whenever the threat of ice incidents occur.

Like the identification of target hazards and the pre-planning of incidents, a comprehensive threat analysis should occur within every community. And, pre-planning of Water Rescue and Ice Rescue incidents should take place along with the development of SOPs, and the training and equipping of personnel. Appropriate personal protective equipment must be obtained and maintained and rescue personnel must be comfortable in its use. Specific rescue equipment must be obtained depending upon the needs of the community as determined by the threat analysis. Water Rescue and Ice Rescue training should not only include the principles of rescue and the use of specialized equipment, but also include safety and survival principles as well.

NOTE: Our readers are encouraged to view the California Ice Rescue incident on You Tube that occurred during the 2012 winter season. This singular victim incident escalated when 11 additional victims ended up in the water while trying to assist the first victim. The bottom line, don’t delay calling for 911 and only attempt to perform a shore-based rescue while waiting for First Responders to arrive on scene.

Print Article