After several days of frigid weather, people have been venturing out on ice-covered ponds and bogs to play hockey, figure skate, fish or run all-terrain vehicles. While ATVs are generally not permitted on public land in any weather, local fire chiefs warn that outdoor ice is never “100-percent safe.”
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) agrees that “the only ‘safe’ ice is at a skating arena” because frozen bodies of water can be dangerous.
“With the cold weather we’ve had, a lot of people want to get out on the ice,” Hanson Fire Chief Jerome Thompson said Tuesday morning. “We get a lot of phone calls [but] we can never say that the ice is 100-percent safe because there’s several factors like currents, waterfowl being on it or fish or stumps … all kinds of different things can affect it.”
“There’s always a concern for ice thickness,” said Whitman Fire Chief Timothy Grenno. “There’s many areas that have open water.” Like Hanson, Grenno’s department does not make general statements concerning the safety of ice on ponds in town.
“We just tell people to use their best judgment and, if there’s open water, then the pond should be deemed unsafe.”
Thompson referred to MEMA’s ice-thickness guidelines that suggest four inches of ice for fishing, five inches can hold a snowmobile and eight to 12 inches a vehicle and 12-15 inches for a pickup truck. His department does not check ice thickness on area waterways.
“You need to keep in mind that, just because it’s eight inches in this spot, it might not be eight inches in that spot,” Thompson said. “We recommend if you do go out, you don’t go it alone. You should always have somebody with you and you should pay attention to your surroundings.”
Generally, ice that forms on moving water (rivers, streams, and brooks) is never safe, according to MEMA. Ice freezes and thaws at different rates and the thickness of ice on ponds and lakes can vary depending on water currents, springs, depth, and natural objects such as tree stumps or rocks. It can be a foot thick in one area and just inches thick a few feet away. Daily changes in temperature also affect its strength. Because of these factors, no one can declare the ice to be absolutely safe.
MEMA offers the following tips to follow before venturing out and what to do if you or someone you are with falls through the ice.
on the ice
• Look for slush, which can indicate that the ice is no longer freezing so you face a greater risk of falling through.
• Beware of snow-covered ice. Snow can hide weak and open ice or cracks.
• Test the ice strength. Use an ice chisel to chip a hole through the ice to determine its thickness and condition. If it is two inches thick or less, stay off.
• Never go on ice alone. Another person may be able to rescue you or go for help if you fall through.
• Keep pets on a leash when walking them near bodies of water so that they don’t run onto the ice.
If someone falls through the ice
• Do not go out onto the ice to try to rescue a person or pet.
• Reach-Throw-Go: Try to reach the victim from shore. Extend your reach with a branch, oar, pole, or ladder to try to pull the victim to safety. If unable to reach the victim, throw them something to hold onto (such as a rope, jumper cables, tree branch, or life preserver). Go for help or call 911 immediately.
• If you fall in, use cold water safety practices: Try not to panic. Turn toward the direction you came from and place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface, moving forward by kicking your feet. Once back onto unbroken ice, remain lying down and roll away from the hole. Crawl back toward land, keeping your weight evenly distributed.
• If you can’t get back on the ice, use the Heat Escape Lessening Position (HELP): Bring your knees up toward your chest. Cross your arms and hold them close to your body. Keep your legs together. Try to keep your head out of the water. Do not try to swim unless a boat, floating object, or shore is close by. Swimming in cold water cools your body and reduces survival time.
Helping a victim when out of
• Get medical help or call 911 immediately. The victim needs help quickly to prevent hypothermia.
• Get the victim to a warm location.
• Remove the victim’s wet clothing.
• Warm the center of the victim’s body first by wrapping them in blankets or putting on dry clothing.
• Give the victim warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated fluids to drink.
• Place the victim in a warm shower or bath with their arms and legs out of the water to warm the core of the body.
Thompson said his department has not had to yet deal with burst pipes or other frigid weather problems, even as they responded to a Mutual Aid fire call in Pembroke on New Year’s Day.
Heavy turnout gear keeps firefighters warm on cold-weather calls, but there is also a rehab truck available through the Department of Fire Services to provide a heated area in which firefighters can warm up. The Highway Department can also be called in to sand and salt, helping to reduce the likelihood of falls on the ice.
Towns are also keeping an eye on weather forecasts to determine how they should approach a severe winter storm forecast for Jan. 4.
“We’re just keeping an eye on it because the weather people don’t know what it’s doing yet,” Grenno said Tuesday. “If it’s going to hit us with wet snow and high winds then we’ll ramp up here and be ready to take on whatever it deals us.”
“Right now, they still don’t know what it’s going to do,” Thompson agreed. “I’m sure that MEMA will be giving us some updates as we get closer. We check our equipment daily, so we’re all set.
“It there’s the possibility that it will be a significant event, myself, the police chief, the other department heads, the Town Administrator, will meet to discuss it — we always have the schools involved in that — and based on the forecast, we may put on additional personnel,” he said.
Fire departments also work closely with senior centers to obtain lists of elderly residents who may need assistance in weather emergencies.