Ice-covered water can be very dangerous, and people can be injured or killed if its conditions are not respected and understood. The Massachusetts’s Department of Fire Service’s S.A.F.E. Program offers the following rules that should be followed to ensure winter safety.

As the magic of the Christmas season draws to a close, we find a new season upon us –– a winter wonderland of snow and ice: frozen ponds, lakes and streams to skate and fish upon; snow-covered hills and mountains to slide and ski down; and winding wilderness trails on which to snowmobile while enjoying Mother Nature at her winter best.

But Mother Nature also has a dark side, and what she gives to us so freely can be taken away in an instant. The ice on a frozen pond or lake that appears to be solid and safe can break apart under us in seconds. The snow-covered hills and mountains that look so inviting for sledding or skiing may be ready for an avalanche. And the snow-covered wilderness trails, used by snowmobilers in the wrong weather conditions or manner, may prove to be a road to disaster.  

With these activities come safety precautions, which must be followed to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all. Ice-covered water can be very dangerous, and people can be injured or killed if its conditions are not respected and understood.   

The Massachusetts’s Department of Fire Service’s S.A.F.E. Program offers the following rules that should be followed to ensure winter safety:

Never assume the ice is safe because daily changes in temperature cause the ice to expand and contract, which affects its strength. No one can declare the ice to be absolutely safe; the only safe ice is at an outdoor or indoor skating rink. Never skate on an untested lake or pond. Ice for skating should be a minimum of at least 6 inches thick (check with your local recreation departments for ice conditions) and never skate alone. Skate only during the day, or in an area that is well-illuminated. Never use an ice-covered pond or stream as a shortcut.   

What to do when someone has fallen through the ice:

Do not attempt to go onto the ice because would-be rescuers often become victims themselves.   Act quickly and call 9-1-1 by using a cell phone or running to the nearest house or business nearby. Reach, throw or row — if you are unable to reach the victim from shore, throw them something (rope, jumper cables, spare tire) or extend a branch, pole or ladder to the victim. If a boat is nearby, row out to the victim or push it toward them.

If you fall into ice, try not to panic and turn toward the direction you came from. Place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface, working forward by kicking your feet. Once out, remain lying on the ice (do not stand) and roll away from the hole. Crawl back to your tracks, keeping your weight distributed until you return to solid ice.   

If you decide to go snow sledding, make sure you know the terrain of the area you will be using. Is it too steep or covered with trees, stumps or rocks? If so, it’s not a good location for sledding. Beware of hills that cross or are near busy roadways.

Snowmobiles are faster and more popular than ever before. When snowmobiling follow these safety tips:

Travel in groups, and make sure someone outside the group knows where you are going. Know your machine, its capabilities and limitations, as well as your own. Respect other snowmobilers, and yield to those who have the right-of-way. If it’s necessary to cross a frozen or snow-covered body of water, do so with extreme caution. When crossing a roadway, make sure the way is clear in both directions. Operate at reasonable and prudent speeds for trail and weather conditions. Wear proper clothing for extreme temperatures. Pack food, water, first aid kit, cell phone, maps and a GPS device. Now you’re ready to enjoy the outdoors, but always remember that alcohol and winter recreation don’t mix!

Frozen ponds and lakes, snow-covered hills and mountains are beautiful resources. They should be enjoyed by all, but they must be respectfully used and cared for, so we might share these great gifts with our families, friends and neighbors for many years to come.

For more information on winter recreation safety, contact your local fire department or recreation department. Also check public skating rinks.

Michael Arruda is the public education specialist for the Fall River, Mass., Fire Department. Community Voices is a weekly column featuring community-based experts or specialists.