Ice Safety Tips From Sussex County Officials; 'No Ice Is 100 Percent Safe'

Sign in Newton's Pine Street Park, prohibiting ice skating. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller

SUSSEX COUNTY, NJ - After tragedy struck this past week in Budd Lake with the deaths of two Mount Olive teenagers who fell through the ice, local municipalities are reminding residents about the importance of precautions they can take while enjoying winter recreational activities on the ice. And some municipalities are reevaluating their current guidelines and recommendations to residents.

In Mount Olive Township's Budd Lake, when The Alternative Press was on the scene during the recovery efforts, and asked residents, and several officials if warning signs were posted at the lake, or if there was a system in place to advise residents when and if it is safe to proceed on the ice, The Alternative Press was told, "no."
During a press conference held on Thursday, The Alternative Press learned from Mount Olive Township Mayor Rob Greenbaum, about further steps the municipality is taking.
“This is the largest natural lake in the state of New Jersey with natural springs,” Greenbaum explained. “We are having the municipalities look into putting up signs on the ice for unsafe conditions. This is not something that happens on a daily basis.”

Greenbaum said that, “At this point, we are investigating lake safety. It is an unreguarded natural lake. It comes down to knowing what you are doing out there and there is no way I could ever ensure the residents that it is safe for use whether winter or summer. We are covering all aspects."
The Alternative Press reached out to several municipalities within Sussex County, for answers on how they are handling ice safety: Hopatcong, Byram (known as the "Township of Lakes"), Sparta, Newton, and Vernon. Both Hopatcong and Newton responded with further information about their towns, as well as ice safety tips overall.
In the Town of Newton, are three locations, where winter ice activities could potentially take place: the body of water by Sussex County Community College, the small body of water at Pine Street Park, and the Summit Avenue Pond.
The Alternative Press spoke with Newton Police Lieutenant, Robert Osborn, a spokesperson for the department. Osborn could not comment about the policies for the pond by the college, as it is private property. At Pine Street Park, however, he said ice activities are prohibited, and a sign was planned to be erected to alert residents of that. When The Alternative Press headed for Pine Street Park, sure enough, a sign was there. At that point, the pond was mostly thawed.
"There's no skating there, it's spring-fed, and, it doesn't freeze at the edges," replied Osborn.
However, at the Summit Avenue Pond, located adjacent to Route 94 by the Valley View Care Center, and diagonal from Newton Medical Center, Osborn said recreational personnel employed by the town, check the ice thickness for safety approximately five times weekly. 
"There's a flag in place," said Osborn, which alerts those who wish to skate, if it is safe to proceed or not.
If the flag is red, he said, skating is prohibited.
There have been incidents where individuals have skated in spite of the posted warnings, said Osborn, at which time the police have stepped in. Osborn said the department has never encountered a person who has proceeded to use the ice after the first warning by police, if not considered safe. If they did, he said they could face charges.
Osborn said in the 24 years he has been in Newton, he has never known of a major incident of anyone falling through the ice at the Summit Avenue Pond.
He described the recreation department as "diligent."
"I think we do our due diligence," he said. 
He said it is important for residents to heed the warnings, and, the ice must be at least six inches thick for it to be deemed safe by the town. 
It is a must, however, for children to always be supervised by a parent, or responsible adult, Osborn said.
"Supervision in any activity is paramount," he said. "There is safety in numbers."
Osborn said the pond is also in a well-lit, frequently-traveled, and visible location.
The Hopatcong Police Department, only two days following the tragedy, posted safety tips on their Facebook Page from Lieutenant Thomas Kmetz. The Alternative Press spoke to Kmetz, and the department's Emergency Service Coordinator, Patrolman Robert Haffner. 
Kmetz wrote on Facebook, "Two young adults lost their lives falling through the ice in Budd Lake on Monday night. January 15, 2004 Thomas Stafford lost his life when his snowmobile went into the frozen waters of Lake Hopatcong. While growing up on Lake Hopatcong, we lost a young friend who we heard chased a hockey puck and disappeared under the ice."
He continued, "There is ice on Lake Hopatcong right now." Then asked the following questions, "Is is safe to go on? What about next week when temperatures will reach close to 50? How do you know if the ice is safe? Can't we just call the State Police Marine Division? Dont they go out and check the ice all over Lake Hopatcong and let everyone know it is safe to go on?"
Kmetz reiterated, and answered the questions, "The answers are NO! Especially on Lake Hopatcong where there are springs underwater, depth changes up to 50 feet in the deepest parts, bubbler systems put in by homeowners to protect their docks, winds that act like the bubbler systems where the water meets the ice and sections of water where ice has separated. (This is found off of Halsey Island most years and where Mr. Stafford lost his life)."
Haffner told The Alternative Press, there is no way to accurately test the measurements of the ice on the lake. 
He also described a possible sequence of events, "If it goes three to five nights down to zero, and then before it was 40 degrees, you think it's cold out, but it takes time for water to cool. This is a scenario, where there is no guarantee."
Haffner, as well as other officials, said some factors which might diminish ice thickness could include: plants under the water, vegetation on the shoreline, water depth, water currents, rocks, tree stumps, snow, slush,water fowl, schools of fish, salt (if a water body is close to bridges or roadways, where rock salt is applied), bubblers, thawing, refreezing, and melting ice, and even the ice settling (ice expands, and cracks, said Haffner, similar to what happens when a person places an ice cube into a drink).
Kmetz posted ice safety tips, parents can discuss with their children:
- Just because there are ice fishermen on the ice do not assume the ice is safe.
- Springs push water up creating a soft spot or no ice at all. What may be 6 inches of ice may be one inch or less a few feet away.
- Ice by bridges can be very thin where other parts are thick.
- Bubbler systems keep ice away from peoples docks. The ice is thin at the end where the water meets the ice. At night it is almost impossible to tell where the ice ends and the water begins.
- With life vests being so compact there is no reason not to wear one while on the ice. While snowmobiling or riding a atv on the lake it is the law to wear one.
- Ever try swimming in the summer with a coat, boots, hat, gloves, long underwear and jeans on? What would happen if you did?
- Everyone should be taught how to swim, but those that are not strong swimmers should not be on the ice.
- How can you pull yourself out of the ice if you did fall in? 
- (You may not like this one but this thought may stick in your child's mind and keep them safe). I know this feeling from falling through the ice over my head: You go underwater and feel the cold water rush into your clothes, you try desperately to get to the surface and hope you can find the hole you just fell through. You gasp for air but it is so hard to breathe. You try to scream for help but your voice is weak. You grab onto the ice and it breaks everytime you try and pull yourself up. You are getting so cold and now you panic. Frantically you keep trying to grab onto the ice but it keeps breaking and you keep slipping off. You are getting tired. Your arms and legs are getting numb. Your clothes are starting to get real heavy and the weight pulls you under. You try and try to pull yourself up. At this point you either will find a section of ice strong enough to support you or not.
Kmetz also posted a link with information about safe operations on the ice, from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (click here). In red bold font on this site's main page is a profound statement, "There is no such thing as 100 percent safe ice."
Click here as well for a video from Discovery Networks, on how to survive a fall through the ice, and this video about basic ice safety tips, from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The video from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said 20 percent of ice victims are children under 12, and most victims are children and teens. Children, as indicated on the video, should never be without adult supervision.
The video also emphasized the only guarantee to stay safe on ice, is not to go on ice at all.
Kmetz concluded, "We cannot watch our children every minute of every day. Especially as teenagers; they know best, they are immortal, life is just beginning for them so why worry? And they make some really bad decisions. Please take the time to go over this with them. Smile when they say, 'Duh mom, like I don't know that.' Maybe before they cross a frozen lake they will remember what you talked about."

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