Expert Commentary

Ice rescue: preparing and training public safety and rescue personnel for ice and cold water emergencies

Published on 22 June 2009

Fire departments must be well-prepared for the dangers of water and ice
Fire departments must be well-prepared for the dangers of water and ice

The fire and rescue service practice of identifying target hazards and developing plans for potential incidents should include the dangers of water and ice, says Gerald M. Dworkin, Technical Consultant at Lifesaving Resources Inc. In this article, he discusses the best practice for the creation and training of ice rescue teams.

On 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 Fahrenheit.

At around 12:30 pm, after spending the mornifng 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 911 on his cell phone. When fire and rescue personnel responded and arrived on the scene, they observed a 70 ft 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 rescue operations, they stood-by along the shoreline until the state SCUBA team arrived an hour and a 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 ft of water.

Expanding scope of threat analysis and pre-incident management planning by fire and rescue teams


Recreational activities in, on and around water or ice - such as ice skating - pose a danger to the public, and should be prepared for by local fire and rescue teams
Potential incident sites, such as lakes used for skating, should be identified 

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 fire 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 (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.

Ice rescue training and forming a rescue team 


Water/ice incident rescue training taking place: it is the responsibility of fire and rescue departments to train their personnel effectively
Basic ice rescue training is a must for all fire and rescue personnel

Once the threat analysis has been performed, and the potential for water or ice rescue incidents 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 ice rescue 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 ice rescue teams. In such cases, the formation, training, and equipping of an ice rescue team can take place. 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 for all personnel, including 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 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 ice 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 ice 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 ice 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 training requirements: how to conduct training drills


Rescue personnel must be trained to assess a scene and select the appropriate equipment and personal resources to effect a successful rescue or body recovery attempt
Rescue personnel must be trained to effect successful rescues or body recovery attempts

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 fire 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.

The ice rescue 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 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 not, additional resources must be obtained rapidly through mutual aid or other resources.

Just as firefighters practice donning personal protective equipment (PPE) 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 they 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 ice rescue and survival skills, including:

  • 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 with / without buoyant aids, fast slings
  • Basket stretcher tescue
  • Ladder rescue
  • Pike pole rescue

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

Ice rescue hazards and some basic precautions


Rescuers must plan for their own safety when working in areas where the ice has already been weakened

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 fire rescue 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 to 30 times faster than air. Once a person is immersed in cold water, their 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/herown rescue is extremely limited.

If shore-based ice 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 passive. If rescue throw bags or heaving lines are tossed out, the victim will most likely not be able to grab onto them in order to be pulled from the water. 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 ice rescue 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 crawling out over the ice must be aware of the strength and integrity of the ice
Rescue personnel must be aware of the strength and integrity of 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, they will be found directly beneath it, 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.


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 threats 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.

Gerald M. Dworkin - Technical Consultant for Aquatics Safety and Water Rescue, Lifesaving Resources Inc.

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