How to Rescue Someone’s Who’s Fallen Through the Ice
Chris Riley Updated on December 1, 2021. In nauticalknowhowby
Safety is, hands down, the most important thing to keep in mind on the water. And in the cold, this is even more important. Icy cold water kills much quicker than warm water. Unfortunately, most people aren’t aware of just how dangerous it is. The problem stems from how our minds understand temperatures. If the weather says it’s 50F outside, you think that’s chilly but not terrible. You could go for a walk and it’d be no big deal. So 50F water can’t be that bad either. This is a deadly misconception.
Why is Icy Water So Dangerous?
Freezing water causes something called cold water shock. This interferes with your ability to breathe properly. If you go through the ice, even if you’re a great swimmer and the water is calm, your breathing will become difficult to maintain. This typically lasts for about five minutes but many victims can and do drown in this time.
When someone has fallen through the ice, it can be hard to acclimate to the cold shock. The cold also makes your extremities go numb which is why treading water becomes difficult and you can drown much more quickly than you would in warmer water. Plus, since it constricts your blood vessels, it can also lead to heart failure or stroke in vulnerable individuals. Your body temperature will drop very quickly. So rescuing someone in icy water is something that needs to be done as quickly as possible. But it obviously presents dangers for you as a rescuer as well. The last thing you want is to end up in the water, too.
How to Rescue Someone After the Ice Breaks
Let’s take a look at some basic rescue techniques that can help with ice rescues.
Make a Call: The first and best option for an ice rescue may not always be viable, but it’s still your safest and smartest bet. If possible, call for help. Depending on where you are this could be either the Coast Guard or a local fire department. These organizations have the skill and the equipment to perform successful rescues in icy conditions. They can also help a victim once they are rescued with life saving measures. However, if the situation is dire there may not be time to wait for them. That said, someone should still make the call.
Keep them Calm: Keep talking to the person who has fallen in. Keep your voice calm, clear, and loud. Tell them not to panic that you’re there to help. Advise them to focus on breathing. Cold shock is going to make this hard. In through the nose and out through the mouth is what they need to do. The cold shock causes gasping and gulping of water. Keep them focused on the right way to breathe so they can get through it.
Know your Times: There is an unofficial rule dealing with cold water rescue represented by a 1-10-1 formula. According to cold water experts that means a victim has about 1 minutes to get control of their breathing. Then they have around 10 minutes before their limbs become too numb to effectively control. Then there’s 1 hour before they will lose consciousness. As you can see, timing is critical.
Work Together: This step may be hard. Hopefully you have the victim calm and lucid. Try to get them to swim to the edge of the ice. They’re going to want to move as calmly as possible and not pull on the edge of the ice or try to pull themselves up just yet. If they are able to, ask them to keep their head up and extend their arms over the ice shelf. Now they can kick with their legs as they pull forward with their arms. If all goes well, they may be able to get their body on the ice. Make sure they do not try to stand or even kneel. If they can get their body on the ice, have them roll away from the break towards the shore.
Lend a Hand: There’s a strong chance the drowning person will not be able to get out on their own. This is to be expected. The cold and also the added weight of water in clothes plus the slickness of ice can make it very difficult. If that’s the case, keep them calm. The urge to panic may set in if they find themselves slipping back repeatedly.
Don’t put yourself in danger. You don’t want to go out on the ice and approach the ice hole to reach for the victim. That could put you right in next to them. Keep your feet on shore if at all possible and find something to extend your reach. If you have a car nearby tow ropes, jumper cables, even a blanket can help. If not, look for branches, fishing poles, hockey sticks, anything to keep you further from the weak ice.
If you’re at a loss, try to get creative. A belt may work. Even a seatbelt from the car if you can cut it free. Most of us wouldn’t think to damage our own property but remember, this is to save someone’s life.
Try a Small Boat: If there’s a light boat, a canoe or a kayak on shore, this can be a huge help. You can slide this towards the victim so they have something to grab. If the ice cracks, the boat can remain afloat and offer a good opportunity for the person to still try to pull themselves out.
Emergency Use Only: So what happens if none of this works? You have no rope or branch. Help is too far off. Time is running out and the person is out in the water away from shore. You have one more potential option but this is very dangerous. If you think you can manage it, and please only ever do this if you are confident in your own skills, you can try to rescue them yourself. This requires you to get down on the ice. You don’t want to walk or kneel. Spread your weight as much as possible by lying down. Crawl to the edge and attempt to pull the person in.
This method is extremely dangerous. We do not recommend this for people who do not have their own PFDs on or are not confident in their ability to do this. But if it’s a life or death situation with no other options, this may work.
Ideally, a human chain could be used to make this safer, but more people are needed. In this case, one person does as we’ve instructed, but the next person is there to hold the ankles of the rescuer. And then another person can hold that person and so on. This maximizes your chances of rescuing the person in the water with no one else getting hurt in the process.
After a rescue, timing is important. Perform CPR if necessary and get medical help. If you’re waiting for an ambulance keep them as warm and dry as possible until help is able to arrive. If they are conscious, get the victim warm as soon as possible. Get them indoors and out of the wet clothes as fast as possible. Don’t rub their skin but wrap them in warm blankets. A warm bath can also be drawn to a temperature of around 102 F to 105 F. Try to rewarm their core before worrying about extremities. As soon as possible, get them to a doctor or a hospital. Hypothermia may set in and cause further complications.
Thin Ice Hazards to Avoid
The best thing for anyone to do is to avoid going through the ice to begin with. Obviously no one planned to get in that position, though. So that means there are some things everyone should be aware of to help avoid danger.
Cloudy Ice: Is the ice cloudy? Does it look like it’s full of thousands of tiny bubbles? Even if it appears solid as a rock, this ice is some of the most dangerous. Those bubbles weaken the structure. You need ice thickness that’s at least a solid 4 inches to support the weight of a human for things like skating or ice fishing.
Obstacles: Have you ever seen a tree partially submerged in ice? Maybe a boulder or something else jutting up out of a lake? That’s something you need to avoid. The ice is always weak around obstacles where it was unable to fully form.
Running Water: There are times when you can skate on a frozen river, but use caution. If you can see the water moving under the ice, it’s probably best to avoid it. If you break the ice you’ll be swept under it in the current. Surviving in this circumstance is almost impossible.
Preparation: If you are going on the ice you’d do well to make sure you have a PFD on. Ideally you’d have some rope, an ice pick and spare clothes in a waterproof bag, too. We all know most people skating, playing hockey or fishing on ice aren’t bringing that. However, you really should consider it. You brought the gear to do whatever fun activities you have planned, right? Bring the emergency gear just in case.
Consider investing in some ice awls. These are small pieces of emergency gear that can fit in a pocket. They have a foam-filled plastic shaft that covers ice picks. Once a victim has managed to calm their breathing and get their bearings in the water, these can be very helpful in gripping the ice as they try to pull thems
Team Up: Never hit the ice alone. It just makes sense to bring at least one other person, just in case.