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Surviving frigid waters when a snowmobile goes through the ice

On International Snowmobile Safety Week, Yellowknife Fire Chief Nelson Johnson shared his insights on ice safety, the common causes of accidents and what you can do to avoid them.
Fire Chief Nelson Johnson of the Yellowknife Fire Division, shares tips for surviving after falling through a sheet of ice. “Hypothermia is always a concern, the longer the person is exposed to freezing temperatures, the more serious it becomes,” he said. NNSL file photo

On International Snowmobile Safety Week, Yellowknife Fire Chief Nelson Johnson shared his insights on ice safety, the common causes of accidents and what you can do to avoid them.

“Responses for ice rescues usually happen when the ice is not formed to a safe thickness,” he said.

Johnson recommends the ice be six inches (15 cm) thick, at minimum, to traverse it.

Water currents and temperature fluctuations are a couple of common causes of thin ice, he said, adding that this can happen at any time.

“This can occur anytime during the ice season and particularly when the spring thaw starts. People may assume the ice is strong enough for them to walk on or use for recreational purposes. However, there is no definitive way to know how thick the ice is except for measuring it by drilling into it,” he said.

The City of Yellowknife works with the Great Slave Snowmobile Association in the fall to determine ice thickness. This information can be found on the city’s website.

“If you look across a sheet of ice, it might appear smooth and to be a stable platform to walk straight across, similar to a sheet of ice that is in a hockey rink. Ice can appear solid but may not be,” Johnson warned, also recommending against venturing out onto ice you can’t see under a layer of snow.

“The ice could also be compromised under a blanket of snow due to water currents or overflow (slush). The snow acts as an insulator and slows down or even prevents ice formation,” he explained.

What if I fall in?

If you find yourself crashing through the ice, Johnson recommends the following step-by-step actions.

“First, try to stay calm. Fear and the cold will have an effect on you. Try to control your reactions so that you can think about self-rescue.

“Swim to the edge that you came from, this ice has been tested and can hold your weight, the other ice is untested and may be weaker than where you came from.

“Place your arms on the ice and snow, using your elbows to pull yourself forward and kick your legs really hard like swimming.

“Do not try to stand up, this may just break more ice and it is harder to get out of the water.

“If you start to come out of the hole, roll away from the hole, toward the direction of where you came from.

“The snow will absorb some of the water from your clothing, do not remove any clothing, this will protect you from the environment.

“Roll away from the hole, to the shore or a safe distance from the hole about six metres, or 20 feet.”

Fire division response

“When the Yellowknife Fire Division (YKFD) receives a call for an ice rescue, the on-duty crew begins assessing the information before leaving the station to establish a plan.

Ice rescues are dynamic and firefighters need to assure their safety too. Rescuers work to reduce the risk so that they do not find themselves in need of a rescue.

“When the YKFD arrives on scene, the commanding officer starts with a scene assessment, and determines a plan based on time, access to the patient, training and equipment,” said Johnson. “The rescue team will always follow the same rescue plan while being prepared to adjust when needed. The rescuers will arrive with personal protective equipment already on. They will become fully geared up with ice rescue suits, personal flotation devices and be tethered to the shore.

“The first rescue technique is to talk the person into self-rescue, if they can self-rescue. This is the safest and quickest rescue. If they cannot self-rescue, the next step is to attempt to reach them using a pole with a hook on the end of it. If that does not work, the next technique is to throw a special line rated for water which is weighted on one end. It is thrown past the person and they wrap it around their arm. If this does not work, the last technique is to go into the water and rescue them.

“Once the person is out of the water, they are covered in a blanket and a tarp to protect them from the wind and cold while being transported to an ambulance. Once in the ambulance, the patient is transported to the hospital still in their clothing, blanket and the tarp to keep body heat from escaping. Hypothermia is always a concern — the longer the person is exposed to freezing temperatures, the more serious it becomes.”

Johnson said that most people are able to sustain exposure for up to 10 minutes before hypothermia starts to occur.

He also recommended that people going out onto the ice be prepared by paying attention to their surroundings, travelling with a friend or in a group, and carrying dry clothing and an emergency kit that includes matches.

If you are travelling in a group, Johnson said to spread out when stopped to distribute the weight across the ice sheet.

A couple of other tips he recommends is drilling a hole to determine the thickness of the ice, carrying a form of communication to call for help if you break through the ice, stay off rivers and leave a travel plan behind with an expected return date/time.

“If you see someone in the water, do not immediately walk onto the ice to help them. Call us first and then see how you can assist without getting yourself into potential danger.”