What to do when the ice is thin

Rescue officials say signs of danger are usually present

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2000

Recognizing the dangerIce safety tips from the state of Colorado include:

Never attempt to walk out onto ice to rescue a friend.

Wait to walk on ice. Ice should be clear to be solid and at least 4 inches thick. Ice thickness can vary, especially at the beginning and end of the cold season.

Wear a life jacket on ice. Zip on a life jacket or personal flotation device over an ordinary snowmobile suit or layered winter clothing. Life jackets can provide excellent floatation and protection from hypothermia.

When venturing onto ice, always carry a safety kit that includes an ice pick and a rope.

Always keep pets on a leash. Pets cannot judge the thickness of ice. If a pet falls through, do not attempt a rescue; go for help.

Occupational drowning, when a fisherman falls or is washed overboard or a boat sinks, is all too common in Alaska.

Pedestrian drowning, when someone falls through ice, is rare, but often preventable.

The bottom line, according to safety experts, is that ice is never completely safe.

``You take a risk, anytime you go out on the ice,'' said ice safety expert Rick Storm, chief of law enforcement for Colorado State Parks.

Ice thickness is seldom consistent and water currents - particularly around narrow spots, bridges, inlets and outlets - are always suspect.

``The best advice is to stay off it,'' Storm said.

Although there were stories of people and dogs going through thin ice at Mendenhall Lake earlier this month, Bartlett Regional Hospital has no records of anyone from such an incident seeking treatment at the emergency room. Nursing Supervisor Sheryl Washburn said she could not remember any recent incident before the death of two people last Monday at a pond on Fish Creek.

In that accident, two 10-year-old boys ventured onto the ice, and the mother of one of the boys went into the water to help them. One of the boys and his mother drowned.

Firefighters estimate the ice on the pond was only 2 inches thick.

North Douglas ponds are where kids go to swim in summer months, said David Thomson, injury prevention specialist with the state Division of Public Health and Emergency Medical Services.

But there is no life guard stationed there and no life ring to throw out, Thomson said. In other words, rescue is difficult at bodies of water that are not supervised, because help has to come from a distance.

``And in this particular incident,'' Thomson said, ``there was nothing to be thrown to help, or any boat to row.''

Incidents of people falling through the ice are difficult to track, said Thomson's colleague Martha Moore, state trauma registry coordinator.

``People survive and go home'' in most incidents, she said. ``So near-drowning is an event that does not show up very frequently in a hospital admissions data base.''

In Alaska, most drownings involving ice also involve snowmachines, she added.

Between 1988 and 1998, Alaska had 43 drownings involving snowmachines, 18 involving walkers and five involving ATVs, said Jennifer Lincoln of the Alaska field office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Thomson and Moore said there are a number of factors involved in ice safety.

``New ice is stronger than old ice,'' Thomson said.

When the weather has been warm, a night or two of below-freezing temperatures will not make the ice significantly stronger. Snow on top of ice insulates it from cold and keeps it weaker.

Signs of unstable ice include:

Open water near or around the ice.

Ice of different color, such as black, gray or white.

Slush or water standing on the ice.

Bubbles in the ice.

Places where fresh water mixes with salt, streams enter tidal ponds, or ice levels are affected by tide fluctuations.

Cracks in the ice.

The state Department of Health and Social Services notes there are no guarantees about ice, only guidelines. Underground springs and even schools of fish can influence the strength of ice.

Another common problem is dogs that fall through ice, followed by their owners.

``A co-worker told me of three incidents in the last week here in Juneau all related to dogs and ice; everyone lived,'' Thomson said Thursday. ``But if a dog has fallen through, then the owner will certainly fall through. Common sense and proper rescue techniques need to be used when trying to save dogs who have fallen through ice.''

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