ice_poleThe ice rescue pole is one of the most versatile, useful, easy to store and transport, inexpensive tools for technician-level ice rescue personnel. Ice rescue poles have seven main functions:

  1. to test the ice as the rescuer approaches the victim(s)
  2. to help prevent the rescuer from slipping and falling
  3. to prevent full submergence if the rescuer penetrates the ice
  4. to help the rescuer get out of an ice hole
  5. to reach to an aggressive, self-rescue capable, or possibly alert victim to assist the victim out of the hole
  6. to grab and secure the wrist of an alert or passive victim without approaching close enough to break the ice supporting the victim
  7. to reach out to one victim while physically approaching another victim less than seven feet away.

When you take a surface ice rescue course, your instructors should teach you how to use an ice pole. Proper techniques are essential for your safety and a successful operation. This article is not meant to replace hands-on training with a certified ice rescue instructor. The information presented here can prepare a department for training and can be used as further education or a refresher for already certified teams.

1. Testing the ice:

Rescuers, donned in proper ice rescue suits, water rescue harnesses, tether lines, and other necessary personal protective equipment, can approach the victim in several ways. While the ice is fairly strong, rescuers can walk with a squat as low as possible while banging their poles in front of them to test the ice. If the pole cracks the ice the rescuers know to try a different route, or proceed forward in a lower posture on hands-and-knees or prone. A change in sound of the pole banging can also indicate a change in ice thickness.

2. Stability:

If the rescuers are not wearing ice cleats, the nail at the end of the ice can be used to help stabilize rescuers as they proceed towards the victim.

3. Preventing full rescuer submergence:

Rescuers want to avoid full submergence if they puncture through the ice to decrease

  • the amount of water entering their ice rescue suits,
  • the possibility of banging their head into the ice,
  • and the chance of ending up underneath the ice roof.

As the rescuer feels herself falling through the ice she can quickly raise and hold her pole horizontally at mid-chest level to catch either side of the ice roof as she immerses in the water.

4. Distribute weight to get out of an ice hole

When a rescuer is immersed in a hole, he can use the pole out in front of him on the ice roof to distribute the weight carried by his hands as he gently kicks and pulls his way out of the hole.

5. To assist aggressive or self-rescue capable victims out of an ice hole[1]

If a victim is aggressive, the rescuer should stay at a safe distance away to prevent being pulled into the hole or risk injury. The rescuer can get in the proper anchor position, extend the pole to the victim and command the victim to “kick your feet and climb up the pole!” and then “roll away from the hole.”

Even if a victim is not aggressive, and does not appear to pose a threat to the rescuer, it is still a good idea to try to keep a pole length away from the victim if possible to prevent breaking the supportive ice the victim is holding on to.

6. To secure a hold on an alert or passive victim before approaching onto the victim’s supportive ice.

The rescuer can reach the loop on one end of the pole towards the victim’s hand. With or without the victim’s assistance, the rescuer can slip the loop over the victim’s hand and wrist and gently twist the pole to secure the victim’s wrist. Once the victim is secured to the pole, the rescuer can approach the victim to secure a flotation sling on the victim to establish immediate buoyancy. If the victim begins to submerge as the rescuer approaches, or the supportive ice breaks, the rescuer can tighten up the wrist-hold by further twisting the pole.

7. To assist two victims simultaneously.

A rescuer can approach one victim while reaching the pole out to another victim who is less than seven feet away. The MARSARS ice rescue pole allows a rescuer to pass a flotation sling to a victim over 15 feet away. With the proper training a rescuer can use this pole to actually put the sling on the victim from such a great distance away.

Now you know what an ice pole can do for ice rescue technicians, it is time to learn how to make one.

Take a 7-foot piece of hardwood banister. Do not use pine because it will splinter apart and break after a few days of hard use. Coat it with several applications of boiled linseed oil, as we learned from our students in Port Henry NY, to help maintain it’s strength. Drill two holes in one end to attach a loop of stiff line. Drive a nail in the other end and cut off the head to leave a spike. Paint the pole with rescue orange paint for high visibility. Wrap several layers of good quality duct tape every foot or so as hand-grips.

As stated earlier commercially manufactured ice poles are available. These poles have various attachments to help extricate dogs out of ice holes, search for submerged victims, pass of flotation slings, as well as perform other functions

The next step is to take a good ice rescue training program to learn how to use your ice poles. Once you have the training, set up several drills to maintain your skills. Pole skills can be practiced on smooth floors where victims and rescuers can be pulled and can slide across without injury.

Remember, now is the time to book a good training program for next winter, to start budgeting for training and equipment, and to recruit committed operational and technician level members for an ice rescue team.

To learn more about ice rescue and patient management see the Surface Ice Rescue & Patient Management book, workbook, and video by Andrea Zaferes and Walt Hendrick. We welcome your questions and comments at

[1] To learn more about victim status classifications see Surface Ice Rescue & Patient Management by Andrea Zaferes and Walt Hendrick

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