With most of north Jersey's lakes currently covered with ice, this is high season for ice sports enthusiasts. Anyone passing by a lake or pond on a nice weekend may see hard water fisherman and skaters enjoying a day on the ice. However the wildly fluctuating temperatures of the past few weeks have created potentially hazardous conditions on many lakes. Sections that are prone to melting quickly have done so and a night of below freezing temperatures might not have built the ice back up to a safe point. Even the thicker sections have gone through numerous melt and freeze cycles and old ice isn't as strong as new ice.
If you see someone fall through the ice you need to act quickly. The victim will only have enough strength to assist in his own rescue for a few minutes. First, resist the urge to go directly to the victim. You will be of no use to him if you join him in the water. If you have a cell phone, dial 911 while you look for something you can push or throw out to the victim. If there are homes nearby, a ladder would be ideal. If a ladder isn't available, look for anything that will allow you to keep your distance while pulling the victim out. A flat bottom boat, a pole, a length of rope, hose, or extension cord or a sturdy tree branch will do.
If you are using a hose, extension cord or rope, try to tie a loop in the end large to go around the victim's body and have him put it over his head and under his arms. He may not have the strength to hold on for long, but with the rope around his body at least you can keep him above water until additional help arrives. If there are enough people, as a last resort and only as a last resort, lay on the ice and form a human chain and attempt a close contact rescue.
If you need to venture on the ice to assist, crawl, do not walk. Spreading your weight over a larger area will reduce the chance of your breaking through.
Slide or throw your rescue device to the victim. Once he has taken hold, instruct him to kick so as to get his body horizontal and pull.
If it's you who falls through the ice, the first moments are crucial. Many people suffer a "gasp reflex" when hitting cold water. If this happens while your head is under water things can be over quickly for you, so fight to keep your head above water. Once in the water you'll have a window of several minutes where you'll have the strength to save yourself. First, get your breathing under control, as you will likely be hyperventilating. Do not remove clothing as it will insulate you
and for a while at least, provide buoyancy.
Go directly to the edge of ice where you entered the water.The ice supported you there so will probably support you coming out. Put your arms on top of the ice and get as much of your body out of the water as possible. If you had the foresight to bring ice claws here is where you can use them to grab the ice. A knife or keys may also help. Don't attempt to pull yourself straight up because it's unlikely you will be able to and will only waste vital energy. Instead kick your feet as if you were using a paddle board to get your body as horizontal as possible. Then using the spikes or your elbows try to drag yourself up onto the ice. You may have to pause briefly to let water drain from your clothing. Once on the ice do not stand immediately. Instead lay on the ice and roll away from the hole toward the direction you were originally traveling from, then make your way to safety over your original route.
If you are unable to rescue yourself and rescue is not imminent, get to the edge of the ice and try to put your arms on top of the ice to keep as much of your body out of the water as possible. Unconsciousness will eventually occur but if your arms freeze to the ice it can keep your head out of the water and extend the window for rescue. Most victims become unconscious and drown before hypothermia kills them.
Once the rescue is effected get the victim out of his wet clothes and to a hospital or someplace warm. Be careful not to warm the victim too quickly as that can cause dangerous heart rhythm disturbances.
Unless you are a first responder, ice rescue is not something most people get to practice. That means it's important to be as familiar with the techniques as possible so in the event a rescue is needed the techniques are second nature. An Internet search will turn up numerous tutorials with illustrations, photos and videos. By viewing a few of these you will be prepared with skills you'll hopefully never need to use.