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Winter Ice Safety

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(This month's Message From the Chief is written by Lt. John Martin, Fire Department Training Officer and Ice Rescue Instructor.)

It is that time of year when people start to venture out onto our local areas lakes and ponds. There is a natural attraction to going onto these frozen areas, unfortunately there is a danger lurking below that sometimes we are not completely aware of. Venturing out onto any frozen lake or pond can be dangerous (unless it’s the Novi Ice Arena).

Even though the ice looks solid, there are no guarantees. There are many charts that show ice thicknesses and how much weight they can hold. The problem with those charts is that they give a false sense of security. If the ice is six inches thick where you were your standing, it may not be as thick four feet away in either direction. There are many factors that cause these inconsistencies in the ice thicknesses: waterfowl, vegetation, snow on top of the ice and water quality to name just a few.

Due to the amount of snow that we have received this winter, we have placed lots of salt onto our surface streets, which in turn leach into the waterways affecting the water quality. This causes the ice to erode from underneath, the area in which we don’t see. This leads to an inconsistent thickness in the ice. With all of the snow sitting on top of the ice it creates a thermal blanket which adds weight and degrades the ice from the top. This also makes it difficult to tell if there are any weak spots in the ice.

Waterfowl that rest out on the ice also create warmth on the top and begin to erode it. Have you ever looked at a cat tail protruding through the ice and wondered why the ice hasn’t completely surrounded it? The vegetation gives off heat which in turn prevents the ice from completely encompassing the cat tail. This also creates holes in the ice where water can come through and going back to water quality can now start to erode the water from the top.

The best statement for anyone who ventures out on the ice is, “No Ice Is Safe Ice”. This is a common phrase but just from the few facts that I have stated earlier lends merit to this phrase. Even though today’s air temperature is very cold, we have a warm up coming. This begins to erode the ice along with other factors. If you choose to go onto the ice please consider the following:

If you do fall through the ice:

  • Stay calm. Conserve your energy. Don’t try to swim around.
  • Allow your arms to rest on the unbroken ice shelf. This will give you some support to rest upon.
  • If you have a whistle, blow it in a short burst. This will get attention better than a one long burst.
  • If you have ice awls you can use them to help pull yourself up and out of the water onto the surface of the ice. Be sure to kick your feet. Make sure to roll away from the hole and towards shore.
  • If you don’t have ice awls with you, get your arms and elbows on top of the unbroken ice for support and allow your legs to float up behind you. This puts you into a horizontal position with the ice. Put your arms out in front of you on the unbroken ice and crawl forward as you kick your feet. If you are able to get out stay flat and roll away from the hole. If you are not able to get out, remain calm.
  • Stay away from cracks or open water. These are weak spots.

If you witness someone who falls through the ice:

  • Call 911 immediately! Give the dispatcher as much information as you can.
  • Do not venture out onto the ice to save someone else. Sixty percent of would be rescuers become victims themselves.
  • Talk to the victim.
  • If the victim is close to shore use a ladder or pole to reach to them, but do not attempt to go out onto the ice.
  • If you have a rope or even an extension cord (make sure that it is not plugged in) throw this out to the victim.
  • Never attempt a rescue if you have to go onto the ice.