North Shore Fire/Rescue

North Shore Fire/Rescue provides fire, emergency medical and life safety services to the City of Glendale and the Villages of Bayside, Brown Deer, Fox Point, River Hills, Shorewood and Whitefish Bay.

How to Stay Safe When Warm Weather Creates Hazardous Ice Conditions

North Shore Fire/Rescue, ice safety

Winter recreational activities, such as sledding, ice skating, and ice fishing can be very enjoyable and help get rid of cabin fever. Unfortunately many winter activities put us either on, or in close proximity to frozen ponds, lakes, and rivers. Understanding the dynamics of ice can help us avoid a potentially dangerous situation, and may help save the life of a neighbor, friend, or loved one.

Judging the strength of ice from shore simply by appearance is very difficult and is an unreliable way to determine whether it is safe enough to support our weight. The strength of the ice is based on age, thickness, temperature, and whether the ice is covered with snow. Other contributing factors include the depth of water under the ice, size of the body of water, water chemistry and currents, the distribution of the load on the ice, and local climatic conditions.

By heeding the following tips, you can avoid having to call the fire department for rescue. The following facts are guidelines, and will not guarantee your safety when venturing onto the ice. The only way to prevent a tragedy is to stay off the ice.


Hard Cold Facts About Ice

  • New ice is usually stronger than old ice. Four inches of clear, newly‑formed ice may support one person on foot, while a foot or more of old, partially‑thawed ice may not.
  • Ice seldom freezes uniformly. It may be a foot thick in one location and only an inch or two just a few feet away.
  • Ice formed over flowing water and currents is often dangerous. This is especially true near streams, bridges and culverts. Also, the ice on outside river bends is usually weaker due to the undermining effects of the faster current.
  • The insulating effect of snow slows down the freezing process. The extra weight also reduces how much weight the ice sheet can support. Also, ice near shore can be weaker than ice that is farther out.

General Ice Thickness Guidelines

These guidelines are for new, clear ice only. Many factors other than thickness can cause ice to be unsafe.

  • 2" or less - STAY OFF
  • 4" - Ice fishing or other activities on foot
  • 5" - Snowmobile or ATV
  • 8" - 12" - Car or small pickup
  • 12" - 15" - Medium truck

What if someone else falls through and you are the only one around to help?

  • First, find a way to call 911 for help. There is a good chance someone near you may be carrying a cell phone.
  • Resist the urge to run up to the edge of the hole. This would most likely result in two victims in the water. Also, do not risk your life to attempt to save a pet or other animal.
  • Keep in contact with the victim. Inform the victim help is on the way, and encourage them to fight to survive.
  • You may be able to attempt a rescue. If you can safely reach the victim from shore, extend an object such as a tree branch, ladder, or pole to the victim. If the person starts to pull you in, release your grip on the object and start over.
  • If you are unable to reach the victim, you may be able to toss one end of a rope or something that will float to the victim. Have them tie the rope around themselves before they are too weakened by the cold to grasp it.
  • Time is of the essence. Once someone has broken through the ice and is submerged in cold water, the effects of hypothermia will set in quickly. The faster you are able to summon professionally trained personnel to the scene, the better the chance for survival.


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