Techniques for Performing Shore-Based & Water/Ice-Based Rescues

Snohomish County Fire District 1 Rescue. Photo courtesy Leslie Hynes

Consider this scenario: Your engine company is dispatched to assist the local police department with removing a dog from an ice-covered pond. You ask yourself, is there really ice out there? The cold weather seemed to have come and gone several days ago. Upon arrival, the officer directs you to the scene where you can see the dog stuck in the ice. The dog’s owner has attempted to rescue the dog, but in doing so, has broken through the ice and is now standing in waist-deep water.

Have you and your crewmembers trained in hazard recognition? Do you have appropriate PPE on your apparatus that will enable you to work in/by the water/ice? Are you prepared to attempt both shore- and water-based rescues? Does your organization have enough resources to properly assist with a rescue attempt?

In my January 2010 article, “Through the Ice: Difficult rescues teach responders valuable lessons,” p. 76, I discussed hazard recognition. This month’s article will address shore- and water/ice-based rescue techniques.

Shore-Based Rescue Techniques
When performing a shore-based rescue that involves cold water or ice, the best strategy to employ is one that allows you to perform the rescue without entering the hazard area. Below, I’ve outlined four basic strategies that don’t require you to get into the water, unless you’re specifically trained in water/ice rescue operations.

  1. Reach: This is as simple as using a pike pole to access a victim. If they’re farther out than the reach of a tool, use longer tools such as ladders.
  2. Throw: You can simultaneously use a throw bag while trying to reach the patient with a tool. Instruct the victim to grab the rope with both hands and hold it close to their chest. When you begin to pull on it, instruct them to turn away from you, but don’t expect a cold, tired victim who has fallen through the ice to keep a tight grip on the rope. Have personnel ready to attempt a water rescue as well in case the person loses their grip. Note: Using a throw bag is a perishable skill. For more information on how to properly throw a throw bag, check out “Safe on the Shore: What you need to know to successfully perform a shore-based water-rescue operation,” May 2010, p. 40.
  3. Row: If you can paddle a boat through broken ice to access a victim, this is an excellent plan B, particularly if you have your own well-equipped boat. If you don’t have your own boat, the most common boats found on shore (that I’ve seen) are canoes, which are extremely unstable. Boats found on scene are also unreliable because they may have mismatched oars or paddles—or none of the above. If you must hand-paddle a boat to access a victim, consider attaching a tag line to the boat so that if and when you get them into the boat, you can assist in the return to shore. If no tag line is attached, you may not be able to paddle back if you’re performing CPR.
  4. Go: If the victim has fallen through ice, you must have personnel en route who are trained and properly dressed to go get them.

Another option you can try from shore: the hose-inflation technique. Ideally, you should use 2½" hose for this operation, as this size hoseline is carried on nearly every engine. You can deploy up to 150 feet on the water/ice; after that, it becomes difficult to deploy the hoseline in a straight line. Prior to deployment, cap off the end of the hoseline and lash a toss ring to it. Attach a pneumatic fitting to a cap at the female end and then inflate the hose.

The inflated hose will support at least 12 people in the water. If the victim is able to hold onto the ring, the shore-based crew may be able to pull them out of broken ice and back to shore. This is a team skill that, when practiced, can be performed in a few minutes and can be an effective means of rescuing someone who is beyond the reach of a throw bag.

Out on the Ice
There are several techniques you can use for rescuing a victim when you crawl out on the ice. One technique allows rescuers to use simple hand signals as a means of communication. Another technique allows you to use whistle commands, but prior to the start of the evolution, all commands must be well practiced and understood to ensure all parties are on the same page. Whatever technique you decide to use, practice it to make sure it will work with or without good communication from the shore.

In an ice rescue, the victim you are attempting to rescue is hypothermic, weak, disoriented and may be unable to assist you in their rescue. Their clothes are more than twice their dry weight in some instances, so don’t assume that they’ll be able to hang on to a rope or a hook—or you. Get some type of flotation to the victim as soon as possible. The best tool for this is a soft, flexible Peterson tube, which can be strapped around a victim’s chest so you can tow them in.

To determine the victim’s physical and mental states, you can begin a victim assessment before you even enter the ice/water. Ask them questions to see if they can respond. Throw a throw bag or extend a hook to see if they can grab or reach for them. If they can’t respond or are unable to move, you must reach their location quickly, get into the water and be prepared to keep them afloat.

The Importance of the PFD
Prior to getting into the water, you must don the proper PPE, the most important of which is a cold-water rescue suit or a dry suit with fleece underwear, and a PFD. The dry suit will give you the thermal protection you need, and the PFD will help you stay afloat. Our rescue techs wear a PFD when entering the water or traveling across the ice. Without it, we’ve found that there’s insufficient positive buoyancy when attempting to support an unconscious, soggy-clothed individual. Our simulated victims also wear a cold-water rescue suit so the rescuer gets a real sense of what it will be like to attempt to support and move a semi-conscious cold-water victim.

Note: Although you may have the proper PPE, don’t wait to call for divers. Dive teams take time to get a response together. And once the victim slips below the ice, your options become limited and time becomes crucial. Prior to the arrival of the dive team you can:

  • Mark the point where the victim was last seen;
  • Clear the ice so it’s no longer an ice rescue, it’s a water rescue; or
  • Attempt to hook the victim with a long reach tool or a grappling hook.

The Incident Action Plan
What is your response? Do you have ice rescue techs with equipment on your run cards? Are they on duty every day? Do neighboring departments have them? Ice rescue might not be an issue in June, but if it’s the middle of February and it’s been 28 degrees for a few days, you may have some problems and will therefore need to know the answers to those questions.

You must also have an incident action plan (IAP) on hand that you can implement quickly and easily. A standard ice-rescue IAP looks something like this:

  1. Assume command and verify location: Initial responders must attempt to identify an actual physical location for responding units. Often, you’re dispatched to a location that’s seen from a great distance across a lake or pond. Ideally, we need at least one vehicle with equipment at or very close to the scene.
  2. Initiate shore-based rescue attempts: One member of your crew can don a PFD and use a reach pole or a throw bag to try to reach a victim trapped on the ice.
  3. Gather information: How many victims are in the water? Send units to verify the condition and location of those who’ve gotten out of the water/off the ice prior to your arrival.
  4. Control the scene: In minutes, helpful citizens may arrive, staffing personal boats and/or wearing their own dive gear. Unless you control the scene quickly via assistance from law enforcement, you may have no idea who is a victim or a would-be rescuer.
  5. Call for more resources: Call for rescue techs for water/ice-based rescue attempts, a rescue boat, engine companies for more manpower, and medical units for patient evaluations and transport.
  6. Assign a safety officer: Assign someone to ensure that all personnel are wearing the appropriate PPE properly and that rescuers in the water/on the ice have a line tender or that someone is watching them.
  7. Assign a rescue group leader (RGL): The RGL develops a tactical plan and deploys rescue techs to make the rescue.
  8. Evaluate the plan: Meet with the RGL and find out how the operation is going. Is there a plan B? Do you need additional resources? For example, if it’s getting dark, you’ll need additional scene lighting.
  9. Remember rehab: It’s below freezing. How are your personnel dressed? Did they even don warm clothes for the response? Get underdressed responders dressed appropriately so they can stay outside for a longer period of time.
  10. Assign a medical team: The medical team should be ready when the victim is brought to shore. If you transition to the recovery mode, you still need a medical team on scene to treat rescuers who’ve been in the water performing a search or assisting divers.

Final Thoughts
The window of opportunity to perform a successful ice rescue is fairly small. If no one sees the victim fall through the ice, the chance of successfully rescuing them isn’t very great. In just a few minutes, people can lose the ability to grasp and hold onto the ice. Eventually, they lose the ability to speak clearly and become weak. Rare is the individual who dons a PFD prior to venturing across the ice. If they did, although they would be miserable and cold if they fell in, the PFD would keep them afloat; some will also keep their face out of the water.

So What Happened to the Dog?
En route to the scene, the engine captain requests that the department’s technical rescue unit respond with them. Upon arrival, the crew finds that the dog and owner are indeed stuck. As is often the case, the crew uses a boat found at the scene, and a police officer assists without wearing a PFD.

Prior to the arrival of the rescue techs, both the dog and owner are on land. The dog is transported to a vet clinic via a police car, and the dog owner is warmed up in the back of a medic unit.

In this case, the operation concluded without injury to any of the responders, but it easily could have had a negative outcome. Had the initial dispatch been for an ice rescue, appropriate resources would’ve been en route sooner and all responders would have had a different mindset.

Water/Ice Rescue Equipment
As rescuers, we must be able to respond to the scene and take advantage of our carefully pre-packed, pre-connected rescue equipment that allows us to intervene soon after we arrive on scene. Below, I’ve listed the major PPE/equipment needed to enact a safe water or ice-based rescue.

  • Cold-water rescue suit with chest harness connection or nylon dry suit
  • Helmet with headlamp
  • Fins
  • Ice awls
  • Knife
  • 200 feet of 10-mm floating rope retrieval system
  • Type III or Type V PFD
  • Throw bag
  • Peterson tube
  • Carlson board or inflatable board


For More Information
To read more about water/ice rescue PPE and equipment, visit

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Volume 12, Issue 4