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Don’t Skate on Thin Ice

How to keep your patrons and employees safe on (or away from) frozen ponds and lakes.

For districts with ponds or lakes, winter can present entirely new dangers to employees and constituents. During this time, when the temperature is cold enough and the water begins to freeze, a new challenge is posed to employees who have to venture out on the ice and to districts that must decide whether or not to allow winter recreation such as ice skating, ice fishing, or even snowmobiling.

Allowing this type of recreation comes with risk. It is important to note that a frozen pond or waterway is never 100% safe.
Ice over water never forms at a consistent rate, meaning that even if one spot seems stable and solid, another spot might not. Four inches of ice is needed to support the average weight of a human, and five to seven is needed for a vehicle the size of a snowmobile

Daily maintenance is necessary, performed through the use of test poles or ice chisels. In addition, thickness should be tested every ten feet from a shoreline and at regular intervals throughout the day.

If you decide it is not in your district’s best interest to allow ice recreation, the question remains, how do you keep people off the ice?

Essentially, there are two options: fencing or signage. Logistically, installing a fence is the most surefire way to get people to stay off ice, but this might not be cost-effective or the most visually appealing method. Signage may be the best route to provide constituents with information and avoid liability for accidents.

For some employees, venturing out onto ice might be part of their job. It is critical to understand what to do in case the ice gives way while you are on it and you find yourself in an emergency situation.

If you fall in, keep calm and do not remove clothing. Call for help if you are able to but if no help is available, turn toward the direction you came—that ice is probably the strongest—and spread your arms out across the surface where you fell in. It is important to distribute your weight along the ice to mitigate the risk of it breaking again.

If the ice is strong enough, kick your legs and slide or roll onto the ice, continuing to distribute body weight as you make your way to the shoreline. However, if the ice is too thin, break it in front of you until you make your way back to the shoreline.

If you witness someone fall through the ice do not venture out to save them unless you are trained in ice rescue operations and have the proper gear. Instead, use one of three methods: reach, throw, or row, to aid in their rescue.

With reach: extend something out onto the ice for the victim to grab onto. This can be a trekking pole, a branch, or any item with a long reach. With throw: utilize a “throw bag” in conjunction with the tool you are using to reach the victim.

Either way, when the victim grabs ahold, instruct them to hold it close to their chest, and once you begin to pull, have them turn away from you to allow for an easier extraction. With row: utilize a boat if available to break through the ice to reach the victim.

Once a rescue has successfully been completed, the work is not yet over. Hypothermia may have already begun to take effect because it only takes seconds for your core body temperature to drop. It is critical to get to a warm, dry place as fast as possible.

Remove all wet clothing, and call for medical attention, if you haven’t already. Cardiac arrest is also possible if cold blood rushes too quickly back to the heart, so handle the victim with care. In addition, keep the victim in a horizontal position, cover their head in blankets, and add coverings such as blankets, towels, or improvise by using newspaper beneath and around the victim if you can find some.

Ice activities come along with inherent risk. Whether you choose to allow activities or job tasks to continue in the winter, be prepared to handle any emergency. Develop a protocol and know how to communicate and who to call in the event of an incident or a rescue.


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