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Dave de Lugt prepares to catch a throw bag from Adam Woogh, Yellowknife regional manager for Arctic Response, during a public safety demonstration on May 8. - Laura Busch/NNSL photo

Ice safety paramount in the spring
Experts give advice on how to stay alive in cold water

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Friday, May 24, 2013

Water safety is on the minds of many residents after a dogsledder narrowly survived after falling through the ice on Yellowknife Bay earlier this month. For anyone who lives near area lakes, especially houseboaters, water safety education is a necessity at this time of year.

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Ten critical minutes

During the first 10 minutes in cold water, the body begins limiting blood flow to the arms and legs in an attempt to keep the core warm, said Adam Woogh, Yellowknife regional manager for Arctic Response.

"What's actually happening with the body is the feeling of cold on the skin sends a signal to the brain that says, 'Hey, we're in a cold environment.' The brain then responds and tries to protect the core by shutting down blood flow to the arms and legs," he said. "Blood flow is shut down by up to 99 per cent and oxygen flow to those tissues is also cut off. No matter how strong or how good of a swimmer someone is, they lose the use of their arms and legs.

"Then it's a matter of getting your arms up on top, staying still and hopefully freezing your arms to the ice."

People have been known to be saved because their arms, or occasionally beards, froze to the ice after their body was too weak to hang on, said Julie Downes, field instructor with Arctic Response.

At this point, call for help and wait to be rescued.

Keep in mind people generally have at least an hour in the water before hypothermia sets in, said Woogh.

Source: Arctic Response

One of the first things experts want residents to know is that a person who has fallen through the ice is far more likely to drown within the first 10 minutes of falling through than they are to die of hypothermia.

This is the truth behind the biggest misconception when it comes to ice safety, said Adam Woogh, Yellowknife regional manager for Arctic Response, a safety training company that teaches several courses on how to be safe in the field in the NWT.

"People tend to say, 'Why would I wear a life jacket? If I fall through the ice I'm going to die of hypothermia,'" he said. "There is that lack of understanding that, no, you actually have a long time before that happens, but you will drown within minutes."

Therefore, if a person has to travel on thin ice or over cold water, the most important piece of equipment to have is a life jacket or some other type of flotation, he said.

Local knowledge is vital for knowing where bad patches of ice are, said Yellowknife Fire Chief Darcy Hernblad. The fire division recommends people travel in pairs or groups when travelling on ice.

A person's body immediately goes through "cold shock" upon first contact with cold water, said Julie Downes, field instructor with Arctic Response during a public demonstration earlier this month. It will feel like you've had your breath knocked out of you and there will be an uncontrollable urge to gasp for air, she said.

The first step is to keep your head above water while getting control of your breathing, said Downes. Try not to waste too much energy during this time because you will need it later.

Next, try everything possible to get out of the water and back onto the ice, said Woogh.

"You then have a window of up to 10 minutes or so when you still have use of your arms and legs so during that time you should be doing everything you can to get yourself out," he said.

Tools such as ice picks, which are worn on a string around the neck, can be vital during this time. Ice picks help grip the ice to get up and out, said Hernblad.

A popular trick used by houseboaters living on Yellowknife Bay is to carry a paddle or another long pole, which helps distribute body weight and give leverage when attempting to crawl out.

"I will say this about houseboaters: they are probably the most experienced people on ice because they have to travel to and from their houses every day, but they also have mishaps" said Hernblad. "Using an oar or a paddle is great because if they do go through, that pole is now dispersing their weight over a greater area."

If you manage to get back on the ice, roll or crawl away from the hole, distributing body weight as much as possible until back on thick ice, he said.

The Yellowknife Fire Division typically receives 10 to 12 calls each winter involving a person who has broken through the ice, said Hernblad. Of these, two to three require an ice rescue.

There are three types of ice rescue: a self-rescue, when a person manages to get themselves out; a throw rescue where a rope or throw bag is tossed to the victim from a safe distance; and a "go rescue," which is when emergency personnel get in the water with the victim and assist them out of the water, said Hernblad.

These are all worst-case scenarios, he added.

"The number one is just the prevention: if the ice doesn't look safe, it probably isn't safe."

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