SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — It may take a few extra minutes to make sure the ice is safe, but those few minutes could prevent someone from falling through the ice and even save a life.
BJ Stiefvater, the McCook County Emergency Management Director, said when a person falls through the ice, it can be only a matter of minutes before a rescue effort turns to a recovery effort.
Stiefvater has been a paramedic in the McCook County area for 15 years. He’s worked for county emergency management for nine of those 15 years.
“Out of (15 years), I think we’ve had two recoveries,” he said of the county emergency management. “It doesn’t happen often.”
Most successful rescues on area lakes happen because someone on the lake site or a state official was close by to help, Stiefvater said.
The distance a rescue team may need to travel in a rural area hampers the ability to safely rescue a team, Stiefvater said.
By the time a rescue unit reaches a lake, it may be too late to save the victim, Stiefvater said.
Stiefvater said damage from cold water can happen in as few as four to six minutes.
The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks does not track ice incidents such as rescues or vehicles falling through the ice, said Jeremy Roe, with the GFP office in Sioux Falls.
Typically, the county sheriff’s office will get the call and the GFP, sheriff’s office and others will cooperate in a joint operation, Roe said.
In areas near Sioux Falls, a search and rescue unit from the city will respond, Roe said.
Most local fire departments don’t have the search and rescue equipment for ice water rescue, Roe said.
GFP personnel do have ice rescue suits and are trained to respond, Roe said.
Roe, too, said response time is critical in an ice water incident.
The United States Search and Rescue Task Force website says the colder the water, the sooner hypothermia sets in.
At water temperatures of 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less, exhaustion or unconsciousness can happen in under 15 minutes. At water temperatures of 32 to 40 degrees, exhaustion or unconsciousness can set in in 15 to 30 minutes.
It’s not just hypothermia that is the risk. Those who fall through the ice and land in the water can suffer a heart attack from the shock of the cold water.
Stiefvater said anglers should not fish on the ice alone and they should carry ice picks that can be used to free themselves from the water.
Day County Sheriff Ryan Rucktaeschel said a vehicle fell through the ice this past weekend, which is more typical of the type of ice incidents that happen in the county.
When in incident has involved a person, it is a situation in which the person can stay in an icehouse overnight or similar, Rucktaeschel said.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources does track ice use fatalities which include anglers, skiers, snowmobilers and similar. The Minnesota DNR lists 18 deaths from the 2014-2015 season through the 2018-2019 season for an average of 3.6 deaths per season. Fifteen of those deaths were snowmobilers or all-terrain vehicle users.
The U.S. Coast Guard lists four phases victims of a cold-water incident may face. Cold water is defined as a water temperature of less than 69 degrees F. The colder the water, the less chance of survival.
The first phase is shock followed by incapacitation, hypothermia and post rescue collapse.
The Coast Guard said victims have one minute to control breathing and 10 minutes of meaningful movement in cold water. The times could vary depending on age, physical condition and other circumstances, according to the Coast Guard.