Is There Such a Thing as Safe Ice??? BPD Dive Team Member Steve Merrick Says, "No."



Talking Water/Ice Safety with Dive Team Member Officer Steve Merrick of the Boston Police Harbor Unit: In case you missed it, Wellesley firefighters recently navigated the frigid waters of the Charles River the day before Christmas to rescue a golden retriever by the name of Crosby who made the mistake of running onto a frozen river that wasn’t quite frozen. Lucky for Crosby, Wellesley firefighters and first responders got there in plenty of time to save the day and the dog but this story certainly could have had a more tragic ending. After his dog was rescued from the chilly Charles, Crosby’s grateful owner offered the following, “They (the first responders) put their lives on the line every day. There’s no ‘thank you’ big enough.” As we all know, whether you’re in Wellesley or Boston, water safety is an issue that impacts all of us. This time of year the temptation to skate or walk on frozen waterways is especially relevant. But is it safe? BPDNews recently caught up to Dive Team Member Officer Steve Merrick of the BPD’s Harbor Unit who tells us when it comes to the topic of safe ice – as far as he’s concerned – there’s no such thing.  

BPDNews: How long have you been assigned to the BPD’s Harbor Unit?

Officer Merrick: I have been assigned to the Harbor Unit for 5 years.

BPDNews: Do you guys get a lot of calls for people/pets falling through the ice?

Officer Merrick: Thankfully, we don’t get a lot of calls like the one in Wellesley but we do get a few and we’re prepared for when we do. Bottom line: If someone falls through the ice, we’re trained to go in and get them out.

BPDNews: Why is skating or walking on thin ice dangerous?

Officer Merrick: Falling through thin ice is very dangerous for several reasons. The ice makes it difficult to get out of the water because it can break up around and surround you. Hypothermia will set in rapidly. The cold water temperature will cause you to expel your energy quickly and – when that happens – you quickly lose the basic motor/survival skills needed to keep yourself above water causing you to drown if not helped out of the water quickly.

BPDNews: Is Crosby – the dog in Wellesley - lucky to be alive? 

Officer Merrick: Crosby is super lucky to be alive. Like humans, he would have had a difficult time getting out alone and eventually would have drown.

BPDNews: Did Crosby’s owner do the right thing by calling 9-1-1 right away?

Officer Merrick: Crosby’s owner absolutely did the right thing. If you see a person or pet fall in, call 9-1-1 right away before you try to help. This way help is already on the way if you become a victim yourself.

BPDNews: Is there such a thing as safe ice?

Officer Merrick: Most of the officers I work will joke that the only safe ice is the ice you find in a glass. And while it’s funny to say that, there’s also some truth to it. To me, the term ‘safe ice’ is an oxymoron. Given the temperature swings in our area – safe ice is uncommon and tough to find. For ice to be safe, it requires extensive time below 32 degrees to freeze. But again, due to our frequent temperature swings, ice rarely has the time it needs to freeze thick enough to be safe. Saltwater ice (like Dorchester Bay) or flowing rivers are never safe.

BPDNews: Is there a way to determine if the ice is safe or thick enough to skate or walk on?

Officer Merrick: There really is no safe way to determine if ice is thick enough. So, again, when dealing with dangerous and deep waterways, my advice would be to stay off and stay safe. 

BPDNews: If someone falls through the ice – what should they do?

Officer Merrick: I hope it never happens but if someone falls through ice, they should do the following: (1) Don't panic. (2) Yell or scream for help. (3) Attempt to slowly kick out on to the ice. (4) If you can’t kick out, hold on and try to conserve energy until help arrives. On the other hand, if you witness someone fall through ice: (1) Call 911 right away. (2) Stay off the ice. (3) If available, you could try to throw a rope or floatation device to the victim but be careful not to fall in. (4) Wait for help.

BPDNews: Is hypothermia the biggest threat to those who fall through the ice?

Officer Merrick: Hypothermia is the biggest threat to someone who falls through ice and it can begin as soon as a person falls through ice and – within minutes - it can become acute and debilitating.

BPDNews: What does hypothermia look like?

Officer Merrick: Stages of hypothermia range from shivering to unresponsiveness.

BPDNews: What should people do if they see someone suffering from it?

Officer Merrick: A person suffering from hypothermia needs immediate medical attention. If possible, bring them to a heat source and get them warm clothes/blankets while waiting for help to arrive.

BPDNews: Although you have wet suits to keep you dry & warm – is it still cold for your team?

Officer Merrick: When members of the BPD dive team are training or called out in the winter months, we wear drysuits with warm undergarments. They will normally keep us warm for as long as we need to be in the water, usually about 30 - 45 minutes. We have 20 fully trained and equipped divers so we have the ability to cycle through if a diver were to get cold.

BPDNews: Final piece of advice to anyone looking to skate on a lake or pond?

Officer Merrick: My advice for someone looking to go ice skating is to go to an indoor rink or a backyard rink shallow and frozen solid.

BPDNews: Thanks for the time Officer Merrick.

Officer Merrick: Thank you and stay safe.