Experts offer guidelines for safety on ice

McHenry County residents may be tempted this week to ice fish, skate, drive a snowmobile along the Fox River or play some pond hockey as temperatures dip to frigid levels.

But area firefighters warn the cold weather doesn’t mean ice over a lake, pond or river is safe for walking or other winter activities.

“There is no such thing as 100 percent safe ice,” said Chris Bedore, dive rescue coordinator for Crystal Lake Fire Rescue. “Determining the strength of ice is extremely difficult, especially for an untrained individual.”

Those inexperienced individuals can face grave consequences. A fall through the ice is always life threatening, said Bedore, who has 14 years of dive expertise at the Crystal Lake department.

The extremely cold water and shock can instantly cause hypothermia, where the body loses heat faster than it can replace it. If body heat can’t be maintained, death is almost certain, Bedore said.

A Johnsburg man drowned early last year after falling through ice in a pond near his home. In February 2012, residents in Grayslake made the evening news after saving four kids who fell through a frozen neighborhood pond.

In almost any instance, people can follow general guidelines to determine the strength of ice and to recover from a fall through it.

Temperatures need to be lower than 20 degrees for at least a week to make ice strong enough to be considered safe, Bedore said. The safety of the ice also depends on age.

For children, two-inch-thick ice might be safe enough, but ice needs to be at least four inches thick to support adults. Children should be discouraged from venturing onto thin ice since adults may not be able to rescue them, Bedore said.

Temperatures, snow cover, currents, springs and fish all affect the safety of ice, which can be a few feet thick in one area and inches thick a few yards away, Bedore said.

Appearances also matter. Thin, white, cloudy or snow-covered ice is not safe, while ice that is clear or bluish is generally safe, Bedore said.

“The most important tip is, ‘If you don’t know, don’t go,’ ” Grayslake Fire Lt. Rodney Buckley said.

Buckley is a team leader on the dive rescue team for the Lake/McHenry County Fire Departments Specialized Response Team. A team of divers from 45 area fire departments make up the rescue team, dispatched to assist individual departments in emergency situations.

Buckley also speaks to high school students around the Grayslake area about ice safety. A common misconception he encounters from people is that clothes make it harder to swim.

Clothes will absorb water, so people shouldn’t waste energy – and excess body heat – trying to take items off, Buckley said.

“Don’t take off your coat, your boots, you just get yourself out of the water,” Buckley said.

If people find themselves in the frozen water, they should put their hands and arms on the unbroken surface of the ice, lie horizontal in the water and kick their feet to work back onto the surface, Bedore said.

Once on the surface, people should lie flat on the ice and roll away from the hole in the water, he said.

Keep yourself safe

Ice thickness safety guidelines for new, clear, solid ice:
• 2 inches or less: stay off
• 4 inches: ice fishing or other activities on foot
• 5 inches: snowmobiles or ATV
• 8-12 inches: car or small pickup
• 12-15 inches: medium truck

Would-be rescuers should:
• Immediately call 911 and use others to make a rescue
• Reach the victim by extending items like tree branches or ladders.
• Throw items like a rope or hose for longer distances.
• Go to the victim, if all other options have failed.

Source: Crystal Lake Fire Rescue

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