Cold Water Survival – The 1-10-1 Rule

Thursday, January 26, 2012

I attended a presentation at an Auxiliary National Training meeting called Cold Water Boot Camp, which works in cooperation with many life saving organizations, including the US Coast Guard.   I saw a good friend and fellow member of Team Coast Guard – Mario Vittone, USCG Marine Safety Specialist and former Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Instructor – featured in the video.  This is what we learned from Mario Vittone.  Fall in cold water?  Take 1 minute to stop the panic – you’ve 10 minutes of physical ability to save yourself – and 1 hour of consciousness left.  Here’s why.

Article by Auxiliarist Vincent Pica, East Moriches, LI, NY

Experienced winter kayakers are dressed to swim in the Norwalk River. Life jackets, drysuits, neoprene hoods and gloves keep them warm and safe. Photo by Auxiliarist Rande Wilson.

1 – The first phase of cold water immersion is called the cold water shock.  Data shows that roughly 20 percent die in the first minute.  They breath in ice cold water in that first uncontrolled gasp, panic and drown, plain and simple.  In some, the cold shock triggers a heart attack.  Surviving this stage requires you to stay calm and get your breathing under control.

10 – The second phase is cold water incapacitation.  Over approximately the next 10 minutes you will lose the effective use of your fingers, arms and legs for any meaningful movement. Concentrate on self-rescue initially.  Swim failure will occur within these critical minutes and if you are in the water without a life jacket, drowning will likely occur.

To quote Mario Vittone directly:

“It is impossible to get hypothermic in cold water unless you are wearing flotation, because without flotation – you won’t live long enough to become hypothermic.”

1 – Even in ice water it could take approximately 1 hour before becoming unconscious due to hypothermia.  The result can vary with time, water temperature and physical condition.  The symptoms can include confusion, poor judgement and unconsciousness leading to death.

Graph courtesy of Cold Water Boot Camp.

The presentation showed rescuers keeping the victim horizontal – not vertical, ever – while getting them into the boat.  This is because of what is called post-rescue collapse. If a victim has hypothermia when pulled from the water, he has an 80 percent chance of surviving. About 20 percent of immersion deaths occur within hours of the rescue. When pulled from the water, the heart has to work hard as the cold blood from the arms and legs moves back into the warmer core of the body. Rescuers will try to lessen the effect by handling the body as gently as possible.

Quoting Mario Vittone again:

“Until everything is warmed back up – out of the water, warm and dry is good enough – mobility comes later.”

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  1. Jim Beckemeyer says:

    Excellent information! I will be using this information and video for training our people.
    Jim Beckemeyer

  2. Mario Vittone says:

    It’s very good to see this information getting out there more and more.

    Have you seen the work we did AFTER cold water boot camp? The next year – we went bake to Lake Eerie to show rescuer how to handle victims of cold water immersion.

    There are dozens of videos on victim recovery – triage – boat and land recovery – packaging – transport – and several lectures by Dr. Geisbrecht.

    It is a perfect resource for the Aux!

    Thanks again for spreading the truth about cold water immersion.


  3. […] I know the dangers of hypothermia and how to recognize and respond to someone who may be suffering from […]

  4. […] I know the dangers of hypothermia and how to recognize and respond to someone who may be suffering from […]

  5. Mark Wilhelm says:

    On March 11,2014 i went threw the ice on my 4 wheeler in lake erie near Green Island. I lost my breath at first. I lost feeling in my legs and so on. By the time i was rescue i was in the water for over 50 minutes,hanging on the ice. No life jacket. I don’t know how i lasted than long. I thought i was going to died that day. I was wearing pants,,a hooded sweather shirt, and long under wear and a car hart jacket and that was it.

  6. John Shiels says:

    As a winter kayaker I found this info very good. Some I knew but I learned here to keep a victim horizontal. I have posted it on few kayak forums hopefully there are others who want to gain the knowledge and be safer. I go out alone a lot even in the winter but I have all the top gear head to toe. I also have TWO waterproof VHF’s and my cell phone in a dry pack. One VHF and the cell always on my body in case I get separated from the kayak. Thanks for the time you have spent to inform us all.

    john S

  7. Thomas Ross says:

    I am an adult volunteer working with the BSA Sea Scout program.
    I am interested in securing information on training youth in “water survival” Most units do not sail or boat during the winter, but I would like to have course information that could be adapted to use in training youth.

    Where may I find described information?

    Thomas Ross
    BSA Sea Scout
    Central Region Vice-Commodore

    • admin says:

      Thomas, I am forwarding your request to our Outreach division and hope that you will receive an answer shortly,

      Yours in Scouting,
      Thomas Ceniglio, District Commissioner CT Rivers Council and
      Deputy Director of Public Affairs US Coast Guard Auxiliary

  8. […] Cold Water Survival – The 1-10-1 Rule « Coast Guard … […]

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