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Minimizing risks in ice rescues

Trying to put together a last-minute plan or owning the proper equipment without the ability to utilize it is both irresponsible and unprofessional

Ice rescue is a process that should not be approached from a last-minute perspective. If you have the possibility of such an operation in your jurisdiction, you owe it to yourselves and your crews to ensure they understand the environment and have the proper equipment. Practicing the procedures required to perform a safe rescue in the frigid environment that is ice rescue is vital.

Trying to put together a last-minute plan or owning the proper equipment without the ability to utilize it is both irresponsible and unprofessional. Do your research, obtain your equipment and practice on a regular basis in a variety of different environments to become polished.

In addition to getting your equipment up to snuff, reach out and contact local resources to establish what they have as well. If your department covers a large body of water, what resources may be applied from the rangers or wildlife officers that may service that same area? Get an idea of what procedures they will utilize and how you will be assimilated into the process. Finally, practice with all the groups that you may have to operate with.

Ice rescue when performed correctly can be one of the best public relations tools available. While this skill is practiced to rescue humans, it’s probably more frequently utilized to rescue canines. Some people would argue that this should not be performed. But the positive public comments and sheer volume of news footage generated during one of these pet rescues becomes lodged in the hearts and minds of the very same constituents who will vote on your next mill levy or bond increase request. If your department concurs, use any opportunity to utilize your ice rescue equipment and practice your skills.

Assuming you have established your ice rescue skills, purchased your equipment and trained your personnel, you should be ready to deal with your first ice rescue of the season. The first element of such operations is evaluating the conditions on scene once dispatched, which will help assess the potential physical impact on your team.

While responding, the company officer should be collecting as much information as possible regarding the environmental conditions, location of the victim(s), bystanders and witnesses, and if known the total amount of time the victim has spent in the water. Ensure other resources are responding: if your department does have a dive team, get them responding. Not every ice rescue is a surface rescue or, if it is, remains so during the entire operation.

On arrival, try to evaluate whether the victim is able to assist the rescuers to remove themselves from the water. Where possible, try not to send personnel out to an already hazardous situation, but if the victim is too hypothermic to assist themselves, we have to go assist them. To accomplish this, we need to evaluate on scene and responding resources; this allows us to match required resources based on our action plan.

Also, utilize a risk/benefit analysis to base your primary plan on. Your level of risk should depend on the individual being rescued (child vs. dog), proper equipment possession, experience of rescuers and finally the primary hazards to rescuers. The key to this action plan is to formulate multiple plans – have a primary plan and a few back-up plans should they be needed. Once a plan is implemented, constantly evaluate the effectiveness and safety of it.

I work just down the road from the Dive Rescue International, Inc. group out of Fort Collins, Colorado, and have learned all I know from them (and I’d like to express my thanks here for all of their support and training through the years).

Dive Rescue International utilizes a SANE acronym to assist with approaching an ice rescue:
S: Simple, step-by-step approach
A: Always have a backup
N: Never take chances
E: Eliminate the “beat the ice” attitude

Once a plan is selected, the IC should try to minimize the number of personnel going out onto the ice. Admittedly, we are action-oriented individuals — but we need to reduce the number of potential ice rescues that arise from our own actions. Should a rescuer have to go out onto the ice, ensure they have the proper equipment, training and experience. This can be a hazardous operation, so regardless of the plan, the rescuer has the final decision regarding a “go” rescue operation.

Like standard water rescue techniques we were taught as a Boy Scout Lifeguard, ice rescue operations are divided into self-rescue, reach, throw and go. Each of these operational methods is based on the ability of the victim to assist with the rescue and the ability of the rescuers to perform the maneuver safely.


Self-rescue makes the assumption that the victim may be able to assist themselves. Floatation devices can assist with the initial phase of the self-rescue, but some way of extricating the victim is required. This may be as simple as a throw-bag or ice awls may be necessary for the victim to pull themselves out of the ice hole they created.


This is an easy proposition should the rescuer be within the range to reach the victim with an arm or a tool. Simple tools such as pike poles, ladders, tree limbs or an inflated fire hose can be used to reach the victim. Like the self-rescue approach, the victim must be able to assist themselves.


If the ability to reach a victim is out of the question, we have an option of throwing something to them to assist with removal. This item can consist of water-rescue throw bags, line guns, floatation buoys, life rings or PFDs. Any object that floats may be used. When throwing an object to a victim, the rescuer must be able to maintain control over it, usually with a line tied to the floatation device to ensure the victim can be pulled to safety. This method is again based on the ability of the victim to assist themselves.


This method of rescue is the most hazardous of the options. It forces one of the rescue personnel to place themselves in the same environment that caused the problem in the first place. For this to occur, the rescuer has to have some method/equipment that ensures that they will float and stay warm such as an ice rescue suit.

Remember, the water has proven its ability to cause hypothermia — don’t allow that to occur to the rescuer if it can be avoided. The rescuer must also have a line attached to allow for the removal of both them and the victim once contact has been established. There are a number of techniques that can be utilized for this to occur, which in themselves would require a separate article. If you are not aware of these options, take the time to contact local and regional experts for the necessary information.

This article is meant as a rapid “Cliff Notes” version of ice rescue. If you have not taken the time to assess your district’s needs when considering ice rescue, I recommend you do so. If you have already performed a needs analysis and know you have a possible ice rescue impact that could occur in your area, have you taken the time to obtain the proper equipment and training to allow your personnel to perform this technique safely? If not, are you familiar with how to contact those who can? Having used them, one I can personally recommend is Dive Rescue International.

It’s vital that personnel practice the skills associated with ice rescue as soon as the lakes/ponds/streams freeze up enough to support their weight and get proficient. You probably practiced last year, but remember the need to reinforce those skills! Remember only go on the ice if the victim can not assist themselves, have a few backup plans, train with those other rescuers you may be providing service with on these calls and select the safest plan to perform the rescue.

We have the ability to perform rapid safe rescues of civilians with this skill. In addition, this is one skill that will garner significant positive support when practiced. All media outlets love these types of stories, let them have access and increase your department’s reputation!

Michael Lee teaches firefighters the ‘Street Smarts’ they need to survive in some of the most dangerous situations they encounter: ice rescues, basement fires, and structural collapses. Read Lee’s advice in his FireRescue1 exclusive column.