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Lieutenant Colonel Eric T. Olson, acting superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, encourages extra caution around Missouri’s many lakes and rivers during the colder months of the year. Whether you are repairing your dock in the off season or a committed fisherman, it’s important to respect the risks of being near water in the colder months and plan accordingly. The following information could save your life:

Water Safety

Cold water shock occurs when the body is suddenly immersed in cold water. Once the trunk of the body goes under, the blood vessels will constrict to conserve core body heat. This response, in turn, can cause a sudden increase in heart rate and blood pressure—in some cases resulting in cardiac arrest. Cold water shock also can cause involuntary gasping reflex. When the body hits the water, cold water shock can cause the overboard boater to gasp for air, but inhale water which causes the boater to drown.

Most boaters wear more clothing this time of year, so the proper wearing of life jackets and using caution to avoid falling overboard is even more important. Hypothermia is also a concern. The body loses heat 25 times faster in water than in the air. Lifejacket use becomes even more important in cold water because hypothermia can quickly rob the body of the ability to perform the most basic tasks and drowning is always a concern. If you wind up taking an unexpected plunge into cold water, it is vital to get out of the water and into dry clothes as soon as possible. If dry clothes are not an option, leave the wet ones on. Even wet clothes will offer some insulation and trap body heat. A warm drink can be given to someone suffering from hypothermia as long as they are conscious. Caffeine and alcohol should be avoided. Drinks with sugars for quick energy are preferable.

Hypothermia can be deadly even if you are wearing a PFD, so it is important to never go boating alone in the winter. If no one knows you are in trouble, no one can help.

Dock Safety

Ice and heavy snow combinations have caused major damage to boat docks in the past. The extra weight of snow and ice can cause such structures to collapse. The Missouri State Highway Patrol would like to caution dock owners about attempting to remove snow and ice from their docks during inclement weather. It is very easy to end up in the water accidentally. Due to the extreme cold water, hypothermia can set in quickly and render a person helpless in the water.

If dock owners insist on being on docks during icy conditions, life jackets should always be worn. Use the buddy system to make sure that someone is there to assist you if you end up in the water. Remember that damaged electric wires around docks should be treated as if they are live. Any boats operating in areas of where major dock damage has occurred are encouraged to operate at no wake idle speed, to prevent further damage to docks already under the added stress off heavy snow and ice.

Ice Safety

Youngsters are easily attracted to ice covered private ponds for skating and playing. The only "safe" ice is the ice at a skating rink. Ice forming on lakes, rivers, and ponds place a person at much greater risk due to natural variables. It's impossible to judge the strength of ice by its appearance or daily temperature. Missouri’s temperatures are fluctuating this time of year, so the construction of ice is unpredictable. Stay alert!

Many ice victims start out as would-be rescuers. To prevent this from happening, do not go onto the ice to rescue another person or retrieve a pet. To aid someone who has fallen through the ice, the first step should be calling for emergency services. A local fire department should have the quickest response time, the proper equipment, and have trained to handle ice emergencies. Rather than going onto the ice to attempt rescuing someone, you should extend a ladder, pole, or rope to a victim along with something that will float.

If you find yourself in the position of needing to be rescued from an ice-covered waterway, there are techniques that should be followed for self-rescue. Try not to panic. Face the direction you came from and spread your arms out on the unbroken ice. Kick your feet and try to pull yourself onto the ice. Once out of the water, do not attempt to stand. Lying on the ice keeps your weight distributed. Roll away from the hole then crawl across the ice back to solid land.

Adults should never mix alcohol and winter activities around our waterways. Alcohol impairs your judgment and speeds up the development of hypothermia.

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