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Ice and Cold Water Safety
Posted On: Dec 358, 2008

Ice and Cold Water Safety


The Dangers of Ice and Cold Water


  • Here in New England ice and cold water safety is an important issue each winter when too many residents are injured from exposure to cold water. Skaters and ice fishermen fall through the ice; boaters and canoeists overturn their crafts. Unleashed pets run onto the ice and people chase after them.

Cold Water Dangers

  • Cold water is any water below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Cold water robs the body of heat 25-30 times faster than air.
  • Safety experts estimate that half of all drowning victims die from the fatal effects of hypothermia, not from water in the lungs.

What is Hypothermia?[1]

Hypothermia is severe lowering of the body’s internal temperature. This occurs when the body loses more heat that it can produce, which as a result, prevents the heart and lungs from functioning properly. Hypothermia is caused when the body is exposed to cold, chilling winds or by getting wet. Hypothermia can happen on land or in water and progresses quickly.


Symptoms of Hypothermia:

  • Absentmindedness or confusion
  • Lack of coordination and weakness
  • Difficulty speaking or slurred speech
  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Semi-consciousness or unconsciousness

To Prevent Hypothermia:

  • Wear layers of warm clothing.
  • Protect your head and hands from the elements by wearing winter hats and gloves/mittens.
  • Keep as dry as possible.
  • Always wear a personal floatation device (PFD) when around cold water.
  • Carry matches in a waterproof container.

How to Help Someone with Hypothermia:

  • First call for medical help immediately!
  • If the situation is safe for you to do so, remove the person from the cold water or cold air.
  • Remove wet clothing.
  • Keep the victim as dry as possible.
  • Wrap the victim in blankets or in a sleeping bag.
  • Build a fire to warm the victim.
  • Give the victim warm fluids to drink (no alcohol or caffeinated drinks).
  • Seat the victim in a warm shower or warm bath with the arms and legs of the victim out of the water. This allows the core of the body to warm first.



How thick is "safe" ice?

  • Ice on moving water in rivers, streams and brooks is never safe. The thickness of ice on ponds and lakes depends upon water currents or springs, depth and natural objects such as tree stumps or rocks. Daily changes in temperature cause the ice to expand and contract, which affects its strength. Because of these factors, no one can declare the ice to be absolutely “safe”.

Ice Safety Tips [2] from MEMA

  • Never go onto the ice alone. A friend may be able to rescue you or go for help if you fall through the ice.
  • Always keep your pets on a leash. If a pet falls through the ice do not attempt to rescue your pet, go for help.
  • New ice is usually stronger than old ice. As the ice ages, the bond between the crystals decays, making it weaker, even if melting has not occurred.
  • Beware of ice covered with snow. Snow can insulate ice and keep it strong, but can also insulate it to keep it from freezing. Snow can also hide cracks, weaken and open ice.
  • Slush is a danger sign, indicating that ice is no longer freezing from the bottom and can be weak or deteriorating.
  • Ice formed over flowing water (rivers or lakes containing a large number of springs) is generally 15% weaker.
  • Ice seldom freezes or thaws at a uniform rate. It can be one foot thick in one spot and be only one inch thick 10 feet away.

What To Do If Someone Falls Through Ice

  • Reach-Throw-Go. If a companion falls through the ice and you are unable to reach that person from shore, throw them something (rope, jumper cables, tree branch, etc.). If this does not work, go for help before you also become a victim. Get medical assistance for the victim immediately.  
  • If you fall in, try not to panic. Turn toward the direction you came from. Place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface, working forward by kicking your feet. Once out, remain lying on the ice (do not stand) and roll away from the hole. Crawl back to your tracks, keeping your weight distributed until you return to solid ice.

 This information is from the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services

[1]American Red Cross’ Whale Tales Water Safety Education

[2] Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, February 27,2006, Retrieved online November 13, 2007 from
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