Surviving in winter's ice cold waters is possible - if you follow these life-saving steps

CLEVELAND - During our winter months, our lakes and ponds typically freeze over and remain ice and snow-covered for weeks. While many look forward to this happening for ice skating, snowmobiling and ice fishing, the dangers of the ice, and water beneath it, are plenty.

The good news is, you can protect yourself from the ice water dangers and even prepare yourself to survive in case you do end up being submerged.

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In 2009, a group of more than 100 fishermen were trapped on an ice flow in Lake Erie. Crews did manage to rescue all but one person, who fell into the ice and suffered a heart attack.

To experience the dangers of ice water, I traveled to Michigan, where the state police put cadets through cold water training by submerging each into an ice tub full of ice cold water. I took the plunge myself.

The water temperature was around 40 degrees, and I wasn't wearing a life jacket or thermal gear, only a bathing suit. Keep in mind, this is the worst case scenario, as typically, you'd be wearing more clothing or, better yet, a life jacket.

DATA: Boating accidents in Ohio

Upon entering the water, I felt an intense shock. Even though I knew I was going to feel the cold, it literally took my breath away. It became hard to catch my breath. My blood pressure and heart rate jumped in response to the cold water shock.

After about a minute, I started to become more comfortable, almost a warm feeling. I felt better pulling my arms and legs into my chest. This is called a help position. It makes it easier for your blood to circulate throughout your body. This is a good survival technique to stay warm.

At that point, my heart rate began to slow down as my body started to end the initial stages of hypothermia. My speech began to slow. I started feeling tingling in my hands and feet and my thoughts started to become hazy.

Cadets typically spend three minutes in the ice tub. I spent closer to four. The entire time my vitals were being monitored by EMTs. Afterwards, I slowly warmed up.

The "on your side" lesson I took away is better known as the 1-10-1 rule - time is crucial.

You have one minute to control your breathing. Then you have ten minutes to act, get out of the water or call for help. You have one hour to survive in the water if you're wearing a life jacket.

DATA: Boating accidents in U.S.

I talked with Walter Hodgekiss, an Ohio Division of Watercraft Officer. He went through a local cold-water boot camp training video in Mentor with the help of the Mentor dive team. It's called "Cold Water Boot Camp USA." The program has released two videos. The videos show the dangers of cold water and the difficulties in surviving. The program stresses the 3 Rs: Rescue, recover and rewarm.

Hodgekiss spent several minutes in the cold water and his body temperature plummeted to 89 degrees. He was taken out of the water on a stretcher and slowly re-warmed by being wrapped in plastic and a sleeping bag.  

The bottom line is - always wear a life jacket. If you fall in the cold water, the life jacket will allow your body to float, so you can concentrate on staying warm and calling for help, not staying afloat. The jacket will also provide some warmth.

Mike Ulrich, a firefighter, paramedic and head of the Mentor dive team, says you'd be surprised at how long you can survive in cold water if you simply wear a life jacket.

Both Ulrich and Hodgekiss say if you are tempted to get on a seemingly ice-covered lake this winter to just not do it. No ice is safe ice. But if you're going to be on the ice, the most important on your side life-saving step is to wear a life jacket.

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