Coast Guard stresses cold water and ice safety

With colder weather forthcoming, and the accompanying formation of ice to the waterways of the Great Lakes region, the 9th Coast Guard District reminds people to use extra precautions when planning recreational activities on cold water and frozen ponds, streams, rivers and lakes.

As the guardians of the Great Lakes and the region’s maritime search and rescue professionals, the Coast Guard understands the dangers of cold water, as well as the dangers of venturing out on the ice. It reminds the public to make a serious investment and commitment to ice safety on the Great Lakes, since varying levels of ice thickness are common.

The primary responsibility of ice rescue lies with each state. The Coast Guard assists state, county and local response agencies when requested by the respective agency and/or when the response exceeds the state, county or local agency’s asset capability.

Surprisingly, cold water is defined as any water temperature less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The fact that air temperatures might be far above freezing is irrelevant when people unexpectedly enter the water.

While the Coast Guard understands winter recreation on cold water and ice around the Great Lakes is a tradition, it is important to take safety measures.

Great Lakes weather is unpredictable and dangerous, especially during seasonal transitions. Those who venture out either on the ice or in a boat should always check and monitor the marine weather forecast before any trip out onto the lakes. Lake-effect snow, high winds and dropping temperatures are good indicators that an outing should be postponed.

Owners of vehicles left on the ice after a rescue are subject to civil penalties for pollution violations. Such civil penalties can range from $250 to $11,000.

A “float plan” should be completed and family and friends should be notified of the destination and time of return. They should be notified if plans change.

No one should ever venture out alone, and everyone should always carry all required and recommended safety gear such as visual distress signals and sound producing devices.

The Coast Guard recommends carrying a personal locator beacon in addition to a VHF-FM marine radio to alert safety agencies of potential distress. It’s best to carry a waterproof hand-held model that can be kept on one’s person.

It’s essential to wear a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device, which will allow a person to float with a minimum of energy expended and allows the person to assume the heat escape lessening position (H.E.L.P.) – bringing the knees close to the chest and holding them in place by wrapping the arms around the shin portions of the legs.

If boating with “man’s best friend,” keep in mind dogs also need the added protection of flotation while enduring colder weather. Not all dogs swim or swim well. Not all dogs like to swim. Like their human companions, dogs are just as susceptible to the harsh elements, including the effects of hypothermia. Several manufacturers make lifejackets specifically for dogs and cats in a variety of sizes.

It also is important to set limits and know when it’s time to call it a day. If proper care is taken, there will always be another day and another outing.

People who do choose to go on to the ice should remember the acronym I.C.E.:
  • Intelligence - know the weather and ice conditions, know the destination, and know how to call for help;
  • Clothing - have proper clothing to prevent hypothermia; dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature;
  • Equipment - have proper equipment: marine radio, life jackets, screw drivers/ice picks, etc.