MILLVILLE — The frigid temperatures gripping South Jersey have created a winter wonderland of frozen ponds, lakes and bays.
But fire officials warn there is no way to tell if those picturesque frozen bodies of water are safe to walk on. One wrong step could turn a fun day outside into a tragedy.
“When you get ice, everyone wants to go out on it. … When it starts to warm up a little, you could have big problems,” said Cliff Higbee Sr., chief of the Downe Township Rescue and Dive Team. “There are always one or two rescues every year.”
On Wednesday, Higbee was helping train the Millville Fire Department to perform ice rescues on top of the frozen Hankins Pond in Corson Park. Higbee, who has been involved with the fire department for more than 40 years, showed the firefighters several different techniques for saving a person who has fallen through ice.
“Once you put your hand on (the victim), you never let go,” he told the firefighters.
For the drill, firefighters cut a large hole in the ice with an ax. One firefighter volunteered to jump into the freezing water in a heavily lined wetsuit while several others worked to rescue him.
The rescue consisted of one firefighter crawling on the ice to the victim, grabbing his hand and wrapping a life-saving noodle with a rope around him. Because the victim was a grown man, the firefighter had to get in the water behind him and help push him out.
The other firefighters, still stationed on land, pulled the victim and the firefighter until both were back to safety.
The whole rescue took nine minutes.
“That’s pretty good,” Higbee told the firefighters. “But you’ll have to shave about four or five minutes off that rescue.”
Michael Lippincott, chief of the Millville Fire Department, said all full-time firefighters and some volunteers are being trained and re-certified to make ice rescues.
He added some of the most common rescues in the area are dogs, but that owners or civilians will often run on the ice to try to save them, creating the potential for two victims.
“We always respond to calls to save a pet, because it’s the right thing to do and we don’t want the owner running out there themselves,” he said. “The only real way to know if the ice is safe is by making a hole. ... You need at least four inches of ice to be able to walk on it.”
Glenn Hausmann, chief of the Hamilton Township Dive Team, said ice with a current underneath it, such as at Lake Lenape in Mays Landing, can be particularly dangerous.
“It doesn’t have to be rapids. Just a regular current will be enough to loosen it and make the ice thin,” he said.
One of the more notable rescues he has seen was when someone drove an all-terrain vehicle onto ice in a neighborhood in Atlantic County.
“There’s usually one knucklehead that gets rescued, and then it kind of becomes folklore in the neighborhood,” he said.
Hausmann added that firefighters from Collings Lakes, Richland, Egg Harbor Township, Hamilton Township, Buena Vista Township, Mays Landing and Cologne fire departments will hold drills this weekend to practice ice rescues.
Barnegat Light practiced ice rescues Wed-nesday.
“We sometimes use a sled for our rescues, but we will be using ladder trucks this weekend for the first time,” he said.
There is no difference between walking on ice over salt water or fresh water, but salt water takes a colder temperature to freeze, said Press meteorologist Joe Martucci.
“If it’s frozen, it’s frozen,” he said. “Places like the bay could be more uneven because of the waves, but it will definitely take more time to freeze salt water ... which could be dangerous if people aren’t aware of that.”
Hausmann said their company line is to just stay off the ice.
“I don’t want to sound hard-nosed, but just stay off the ice,” he said. “There are community ice rinks, skating events sponsored by fire departments. Those things are much safer.”