Over the past two winters, 28 people have fallen through the ice on Hennepin County waterways.

Twenty-five survived, largely because of quick action by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office Water Patrol unit.

Last week, deputies and special deputies demonstrated their lifesaving techniques on Lake Minnetonka, with Sheriff Rich Stanek warning residents not to be fooled by the early blast of freezing weather.

"Everybody is on thin ice this time of year," Stanek said. "We will do what is necessary to save lives. … Every [ice emergency] is preventable if you are aware. You always have to be aware of your surroundings."

Stanek said most rescues involve experienced snowmobilers and anglers who didn't realize they were in peril. He and his staff ran through guidelines to lessen the chances of falling through:

• Ice needs to be at least 4 inches thick to walk on.

• Ice must be a minimum of 5 inches thick to support a snowmobile.

• Ice needs to be at least 12 to 15 inches thick to support icehouses and vehicles.

The county says ice is never completely safe, noting, for example, that while it might be a foot thick in one place, it may be only one inch thick a few yards away.

If you are on the ice, wear a life jacket and carry ice picks, critical tools needed to pull yourself out of the icy water if you break through, said Sgt. Kent Vnuk. If you see someone else go through the ice, do not run straight to the victim. Instead, be equipped with rope and a throw bag or a life jacket. Call 911.

"Two people are a lot harder to rescue than one," Stanek said.

Time is the ultimate enemy in icy water rescues, with hypothermia setting in almost immediately.

"In the first few minutes, you lose your fine motor skills," Vnuk said. "After 10 to 14 minutes, you are going to have some pretty severe problems."

Then five members of the Water Patrol donned insulated, waterproof "mustang suits" and demonstrated a rescue on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. The team members were linked together by a rope like mountain climbers. They were spaced about 5 feet apart and maneuvered on their knees to keep their balance.

"It's all about weight distribution," Stanek said.

A member of the rescue team slid into the water, attached a rope around the mock victim's waist and helped heft the mock victim out the water.

Experiencing the panic

The sheriff's Water Patrol unit's 25 members handle all ice and water rescues in the county. The team has three air boats that allow them to traverse ice and water.

Some members are full-time deputies, while others are special deputies who volunteer.

Anna Flohr, 27, is one of the volunteers. She just finished college, where she majored in law enforcement. She works in loss prevention in the private sector but is willing to answer the call as a special deputy when someone goes through the ice.

She said she volunteers because she like the outdoors and helping others.

She and others on the team go through extensive training.

Even with the training, the first time she went through the ice for training sent a surge of panic through her system.

"It was very scary. You have the feeling of falling through the ice," Flohr said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804