Ice Rescue

The time has come for even those of us in the warmer climates to start seeing some occasional cold and ice. The next couple of months brings in calls that we don’t see very often, or for years at a time. Coming from New York it was normal to get lakes, ponds and other bodies of water to freeze over, attracting many kids with their ice skates, sleds and winter toys.


Now living in the mid-east, we often see those barely frozen bodies of water attracting those kids who think they can go out and play, leading to often disastrous results. We need to be prepared to handle those ice/water rescue calls and understand our limitations in regards to our departments experience and equipment.

As we have talked about in my other articles we need to treat ice rescues as any other specialized event and start by looking at our department, training and equipment.

Awareness Level Response

This is the minimum level of response that our department should be operating at. So this includes the normal policies and procedures for any specialized event. Every department must be able to answer the following questions and have policies and procedures to:

  • Recognize the hazard
  • Assess the hazard
  • Identify the resources needed to operate around the hazard
  • Implement the appropriate response to the hazard
  • Implement the proper site control and scene management
  • Make the appropriate risk/benefit analysis (Rescue vs. Recovery)

The most important aspect for the Awareness level responder is to stop the event from progressing. We can’t always change the results of the primary event, but we can prevent any additional complications. This is where the Risk/Benefit becomes so important. As supervisors we do not want to place any more people or firefighters in harm’s way than we have to, especially if there is nothing to gain. A recovery is a recovery and there is no excuse to losing or harming a firefighter while making one. If your department does not have the resources to conduct an ice rescue than you should stay in the cold zone and have the plan in place to how you will handle the rest of the event — mutual aid, police unit, etc.

Operations Level Response

At this level your department has taken on additional responsibilities and can operate in the warm zone. Departments that operate at the operations level must have policies and procedures for the following:

  • Recognizing the unique hazards related to an ice rescue
  • Identify water and ice characteristics
  • Operation of surface support equipment used in water and ice rescues
  • Obtaining the appropriate equipment needed to conduct the ice rescue
  • Recognizing and treating a victim’s hypothermia
  • Safe entry of ice divers into an ice hole, if you have ice divers

Any trained personnel should be able to identify an ice rescue incident. At the operations level you should be able to go a step beyond that and understand all the associated risks that can occur and how to avoid them. This includes supporting the rescue for the technician level providers that will be actively making their way to the victim. Identifying thin ice, depth of the water and any additional hazards such as currents or entanglements. Gaining access and pre-placing ice/water rescue equipment can allow rescuers faster access to the victim. Having ladders ready, throw rings, PFDs or inflatable boats can all help to assist the rescue and quite often allow the victim to self-rescue.

Many departments have created their own devices with a hoseline, some caps and an air hose. This allows them to inflate the hoseline to become a large floating boom to send out to a victim. Treating a hypothermia victim should be standard practice as almost every agency already has some type of EMS response already in place. Ice divers are a specialized group and a topic for a different article.

Technician Level Response

As technician level responders, you are the ones that are entering the hot zone to affect the rescue. As Ice Rescue Technicians you will have to meet everything at the awareness and operations level as well as the following Technician requirements:

  • Self-Rescue Techniques unique to ice rescue
  • Reach, throw, row, go techniques specific to ice
  • Use of watercraft, specialty craft and equipment specific to ice rescue

Self-rescue techniques for ice rescue could mean a number of different skills depending on the situation. This may include something like kick, crawl and roll. This is a technique that allows you to self-extricate from an ice hole by kicking (swim technique) and then pulling yourself straight out onto solid ice, then spreading yourself out and rolling onto stronger ice. Reach, throw, row, go — we are all familiar with and for ice rescue the system remains the same, with the goal of always spreading out your weight as much as possible.

Using watercraft, and specialty equipment will just depend on the resources available to you. Pre-planning can go a long way to knowing what watercraft are available locally and how to access them in an emergency. Military options such as Coast Guard helicopters, divers and other watercraft can often offer assistance if notified early on.

Ice rescues don’t occur all that often, but when they do, you must be able to respond and mitigate the situation quickly. Most victims that fall through the ice have about 10 minutes before their limbs become useless and they will no longer be able to self-extricate. Having a preplan to an ice rescue will give that victim the best chance for survival. Training for an ice rescue will also help to get interagency cooperation. From initial response, to technician level responders, to the emergency department all working together can help any rescue to have a successful outcome.

David I King Jr. has been with the Chesapeake Fire Department for 20 years and is currently a Special Operations Captain with the Flammable Liquids Firefighting team. He is also certified as a Dive Medic Technician and is the Dive Medic Coordinator for the Chesapeake Police Underwater Search and Recovery team. He is the Medical Director for Law Enforcement United’s National Board and is the owner of Underwater Medics LLC, a Public Safety Dive Medic Instruction company. You can contact him at or hear him on “The Dive Medic Podcast” on iTunes or Stitcher.Ã¥Sources – NFPA 1670 – 2017 Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents.

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