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Missouri Highway Patrol Addresses Cold Weather Water Safety

Colonel Ron Replogle, superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, urges everyone to be especially careful and aware around the state’s many bodies of water during the cold weather months.

Frozen Lake
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

Ice Safety: Many cold weather anglers use lakes or ponds for winter recreational activities. Youngsters are easily attracted to ice covered private ponds for skating and playing. Theoretically, the only “safe” ice is the ice at a skating rink. Ice forming on lakes, rivers, and ponds place a person at much greater risk due to natural variables. It’s impossible to judge the strength of ice by its appearance or daily temperature. This week’s temperatures are fluctuating from record-breaking, below zero temperatures to the upper 40s, which will greatly affect the construction of ice.

Here are a few guidelines for use by winter recreation enthusiasts:

  • Wait to walk out on the ice until there are at least four inches of clear, solid ice.
  • Measure ice thickness in several locations, starting in areas where you know the water is shallow. If the ice thickness is less than three inches, it is best to stay off the ice. Also, there is clear ice and white ice. White ice has air or snow within it and is weaker. This ice should be considered suspect for recreational use.
  • Stay off river ice. River currents quickly change ice thickness overnight or between different parts of the river. Currents can slow ice formation and cause existing ice to be much more fragile.
  • Never go onto ice alone. A buddy may be able to rescue you or go for help if you get into trouble. A companion can attempt a rescue by extending a pole or branch to the victim or throwing a rope or knotted clothing. Remember: If the ice could not support their weight, it will not support your weight.
  • Wear a life jacket. Life vests or float coats provide excellent flotation and protection from hypothermia. Wearing layered winter clothes can increase your chances of survival if you do go through the ice.
  • Take safety equipment with you. Include ice picks, ice staff, rope, and a small personal safety kit—a pocketknife, whistle, screwdrivers with string, and cell phone—in your pocket.
  • Avoid driving on ice. It is very difficult to see open holes in the ice and increases your chances of ending up in the water unexpectedly.

Always supervise children playing on or near ice. Make sure they understand the dangers of being on the ice and insist that they wear a lifejacket/PFD or thermal protection buoyant suit. Never let them play on ponds or lakes unattended. Adults should educate children about the dangers of playing on ice.

Many ice victims start out as would-be rescuers. To prevent this from happening, do not go onto the ice to rescue another person or retrieve a pet. To aid someone who has fallen through the ice the first step should be calling for emergency services. A local fire department should have the quickest response time, the proper equipment, and have trained to handle ice emergencies. Rather than going onto the ice to attempt rescuing someone, you should extend a ladder, pole, or rope to a victim along with something that will float.

If you find yourself in the position of needing to be rescued, there are techniques that should be followed for self rescue. Try not to panic. Face the direction you came from and spread your arms out on the unbroken ice. Kick your feet and try to pull yourself onto the ice. Once out of the water, do not attempt to stand. Lying on the ice keeps your weight distributed. Roll away from the hole then crawl across the ice back to solid land.

Adults should never mix alcohol and winter ice recreational activities. Alcohol impairs your judgment and speeds up the development of hypothermia.

Dock Safety: Dock owners should keep safety in mind, also. Ice and heavy snow combinations have caused major damage to boat docks in the past. The extra weight of snow and ice can cause such structures to collapse. The Missouri State Highway Patrol would like to caution dock owners about attempting to remove snow and ice from their docks during inclement weather. It is very easy to end up in the water accidentally. Due to the extreme cold water, hypothermia can set in quickly and render a person helpless in the water.

If dock owners insist on being on docks during icy conditions, life jackets should always be worn. Use the buddy system to make sure that someone is there to assist you if you end up in the water. Remember that damaged electric wires around docks should be treated as if they are live. Any boats operating in areas of where major dock damage has occurred are encouraged to operate at no wake idle speed, so as to prevent further damage to docks already under the added stress off heavy snow and ice.

Water Safety: Cold shock occurs when the body is suddenly immersed in cold water. Once the trunk of the body goes under, the blood vessels will constrict in order to conserve core body heat. This response, in turn, can cause a sudden increase in heart rate and blood pressure—in some cases resulting in cardiac arrest. Cold shock also can cause involuntary gasping reflex. When the body hits the water, cold shock can cause the overboard boater to gasp for air, but inhale water which causes the boater to drown.

Hypothermia is also a concern. The body loses heat 25 times faster in water than in the air. Lifejacket use becomes even more important in cold water because hypothermia can quickly rob the body of the ability to perform the most basic tasks and drowning is always a concern. If you wind up taking an unexpected plunge into cold water, it is vital to get out of the water and into dry clothes as soon as possible. If dry clothes are not an option leave the wet ones on. Even wet clothes will offer some insulation and trap body heat. A warm drink can be given to someone suffering from hypothermia as long as they are conscious. Caffeine and alcohol should be avoided. Drinks with sugars for quick energy are preferable.

Hypothermia can be deadly even if you are wearing a PFD, so it is important to never go boating alone in the winter. If no one knows you are in trouble, no one can help.

The Patrol encourages motorists and watercraft operators to protect themselves by making sure everyone in the vehicle is properly restrained in a seat belt or child restraint and everyone in the vessel is wearing an approved life jacket. Click It 4 Life and Wear It!!!

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