Ice Rescue: 5 Strategies for Saving a Victim Without Becoming One


Ice rescue
PREACH: encourage the victim to stay afloat and let him know you're helping. Photo provided by Josh Shanley

Before you try any of these steps, call 911 if possible. Getting help on the way is important before putting yourself in danger. To rescue the victim, follow these steps in order: Preach, reach, throw, row, go.

Let's start with Preach.

It's not about proselytizing. It means to yell instructions to the person. Don't get too close. You don't want to be the next one to fall in by getting too close to the same thin ice. Encourage the victim to keep trying to stay afloat and not to give up. You're letting him know you're there and you're trying to help, but you're going to do this safely.


Ice rescue station
Look for an ice rescue station stocked with rescue tools, including rope. Photo by mtsn

If you can talk the victim out of the ice, wonderful! If not, your next best bet is to try to reach him.

Reach out to the victim without leaving shore. If you can reach the victim without getting on the ice, that's the best. Use ladders, poles or anything handy to reach the victim. In some areas, ice rescue tools are available for the public. Don't go any closer to the victim or further on the ice than you have to go.


Ice rescue victim
The "victim" in a training drill gets a rope and now waits for rescuers. Photo by James Weliver/Bolton Massachusetts Fire Department

If you can't reach the victim with a ladder or a pole, try to throw them a line.

Throw something to the victim and pull her out. A throw rope is made for this purpose, but you can also use jumper cables or garden hoses -- whatever is handy and strong enough to pull the victim from the water. If possible, have the victim tie the rope around her before hypothermia makes it difficult for her to grasp the rope.


stay afloat, even over ice
Use a flotation device if possible to avoid sinking if the ice breaks and "row" out to the victim. Photo by James Weliver/Bolton Massachusetts Fire Department

If you can't reach and you can't throw something. You'll have to get the victim yourself. Take something to float on. When rescuing a drowning victim, this step is called Row. I know you're probably not going to row on the ice, but you should at least float.

Row, or float, out to the victim. In the case of ice rescue, push a flotation device out to the victim. If the ice breaks again, you'll be floating on the cold water underneath instead of swimming in it.


ice rescue training
If you have to go to the victim, lie down on the ice to spread out your weight. Photo by James Weliver/Bolton Massachusetts Fire Department

When all else fails (or is unavailable) you might just have to go get him. In this case, it's best if the professionals can do it. However, we all know that the clock is ticking as long as the victim is in the icy cold water.

If you must approach the hole in the ice, don't walk upright. Lay down and roll or slide up to the edge. Your body weight will be spread over a larger surface area, making the ice less likely to break more. Combine going with reaching; use whatever you can to reach the victim without getting too close to the hole in the ice.

Treat Hypothermia

Coast Guard ice rescue training
Once they're out of the ice, they're still not out of the woods. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class William Mitchell/United States Coast Guard

Falling through ice to the cold water below is a truly life-threatening situation and requires quick action. It only takes a minute or two before the victim becomes too weak to escape the water on his own. Once back on the ice, the victim is still in danger of falling through again or of succumbing to hypothermia. He or she might also have frostbite. Saving a victim from icy water is dangerous, but following these few simple tips can help.

If you're going to spend lots of time on frozen bodies of water, get the proper training and make sure you have the right equipment in case disaster strikes. This is a dangerous operation even when done by professionals, but good gear and know-how goes a long way to making this a successful save.

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