5 steps to a safe ice rescue

Proper firefighter training, equipment, technique and awareness can reduce the dangers of ice rescues


This article was originally posted Mar. 2, 2015 and has been updated with new information.

In water rescue, there is a universally accepted rescue sequence:

  1. Self rescue
  2. Reach
  3. Throw
  4. Row
  5. Go

A "go" rescue is the point in which the rescuer physically goes after and retrieves the victim. Before committing to this decision, every rescuer should follow a checklist.

Rescuers should be qualified and trained to perform the task they are preparing to undertake.

Analyze the ice rescue environment

To avoid getting too in-depth about swift water environments, we'll focus on ice rescue on static or slow-moving current. I am a strong proponent of stating that a "go" rescue should never be performed on ice in which the water current is flowing greater than 1 knot without having some extraordinary conditions and precautions in place. 

This would include some very experienced and certified rescue swimmers, standby ice divers, water crafts, down-river rescuers, breach points in the ice and a very savable victim.

When we analyze this scene, we are trying to identify the victim, the victim's condition, any hazards present and the condition of the ice. If we can't locate the victim, we are looking for the hole in the ice, any tracks on the ice surface and any competent witness. 

When assessing the ice, we are primarily evaluating the path that the victim traveled before falling through. This is the most reliable path to the victim because it has already been traveled and supported their weight. All other surfaces are unknown until walked. 

If the ice is unstable and has floating and slushy segments, immediately call for an inflatable platform from which we can launch a rescue. This can be as simple as a rescue sled or swim board or as elaborate as an airboat or hovercraft.

Self-rescue options

Assessing the victim should involve the first two or three applications in the rescue sequence. If the victim appears responsive and capable, coach them through self-rescue. My commands for this are as follows.

  • Hands on the ice. This extends the victim's arms out of the hole and onto the ice surface. If it is cold enough, their wet arms will freeze to the ice, which may hold them if the rescue is prolonged and they can't stay above the surface on their own.
  • Pull and kick. The victim has to get their waist to come up in the water and pull with their arms to get their chest on the ice edge.
  • Roll. This will equalize the victim's load on the ice edge as much as possible and allow them to escape without point loading the ice and making a new hole or simply expanding the existing hole.

During the self-rescue coaching, closely evaluate the victim's ability to comprehend and comply. If they are mentally or physically diminished, hypothermia has already set in and they will continue to decline rapidly. This result would immediately progress towards a "go" rescue.

Reach or throw

If the victim is compliant and coherent but simply can't get out of the hole, progress to reaching or throwing. This involves approaching the water's edge with throw bags, a reaching tool such as a long pike or Z hook or a manufactured pole

All personnel who approach the water's edge should have an approved PFD on and appropriate insulation such as a survival coat or dry suit – they should not be wearing turnout gear.

When throwing or reaching, alert the victim to what you are about to do and then do it. This is usually a short window of opportunity.

Victims need hand strength to hold onto a rope while being pulled out. Cold hands do not last long.

Rescuing the victim

The next available choice is to go get the victim; the ice will dictate whether the rescuer approaches with or without a buoyant platform. Before launching into "go" mode, have a tender in place with a tagline connected to a reliable point on the rescuer's PPE. 

There are several ways to make this attachment. There are also different views on using a PFD when wearing a dry suit. Dry suits are inherently buoyant, particularly ice suits, which have integrated thermal liners. 

I advocate adding a PFD to the ensemble because the suits are designed to provide adequate buoyancy for the individual, not the individual and a victim. When the rescuer enters the hole and has to support the victim's weight, they can use all the buoyancy they can get. 

Too often we train using firefighters wearing dry suits in the role of the victim. This presents an unrealistic degree of victim flotation.

With tagline attached, the rescuer can progress across the ice in the prone position using ice awls or in a three-point search stance sounding and prodding the ice ahead. Once the rescuer gets to the hole they can attempt to hook the victim with their reaching and sounding tool. 

If this doesn't work, the rescuer can rig a body sling to the victim or simply enter the hole and physically secure the victim.

OATH signals

Once the victim is secured, the rescuer gives the signal to be hauled in with by the tagline. This signal is typically communicated using the OATH acronym. 

  • OK, one helmet tap. 
  • Advance or give me line, two helmet taps. 
  • Take up slack or pull the line, three helmet taps. 
  • Help or send another rescuer, four helmet taps. 

When the tender sees the three-tap signal, they should slowly pull the tandem out of the hole and across the ice surface to safety. Hypothermic victims are extremely susceptible to cardiac dysrhythmias, which are easily induced by rough handling or abrupt movements. 

To help prevent this, the rescuer should try to shield the victim's torso from the ice surface by placing themselves between the victim and the ice.

Remember that ice rescue can be extremely hazardous. All rescuers in "go" mode should have a tag line managed and attached at all times so they don't inadvertently get lost under the ice surface. 

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