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Taking the plunge in the name of science
Posted Monday, September 21, 2009 8:34 AM
 
Cold Water Boot Camper Mike Brako, an officer with the Winnipeg Police Service’s River Patrol, perfects his cannonball technique under the watchful eye of U of M's Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht.

Just in time for the back-to-school season (and the inevitable onset of winter), comes this cold weather pop quiz, courtesy of Canada’s own Professor Popsicle.

The first (OK, the only) question: “Just how long can a person stay immersed in near-freezing water before hypothermia sets in?”

If you guessed two minutes – or five minutes, or even 10 – then congratulations, you’re among the 70% of North Americans who were wa-a-ay off the mark when answering the same question in a recent survey.

For the record, the correct answer is “30 minutes or more,” something Professor Popsicle – aka Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, an expert in cold stress physiology from the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management (FKRM) – hopes to instill in the general public via a newly-produced DVD.

Entitled Cold Water Boot Camp, the DVD was shot over two days last spring, when nine participants were put through a battery of tests requiring them to endure the frigid 6°C temperatures of Lake Simcoe (north of Toronto) for extended periods of time.

On the first day, prior to being given much in the way of information about cold water exposure, the participants were asked to simply jump in the water and swim for as long as they could.

“They were all pretty surprised that they didn’t do as well as they’d thought,” says Giesbrecht of the participants, most of whom are employed as police officers, fire fighters, Coast Guard or Search and Rescue workers (but none of whom made it very far once in the water).

On the second day, following a classroom session dealing with prevention and safety techniques, participants were split into test groups. A few of them were again asked to swim for as long as they could (some with life-jackets, some without), while others remained in the water for even longer, allowing Giesbrecht to monitor their strength and movement skills.

But while certain results were easy to predict (the swimmer with the life-jacket made it much further than those without; the strength test participants had trouble putting on a life-jacket while in the water, and after a while couldn’t even make a fist), others were somewhat more surprising. Like the fact that core temperature readings showed none of the participants were hypothermic, even after they’d been in the water for close to an hour.

The findings support Giesbrecht’s assertions that it takes much longer than most people realize for hypothermia to set in, and help to illustrate the importance of what he calls the “1-10-1 principle.”

“You have one minute to get your breathing under control, so don’t panic,” says Giesbrecht, who first brought the concept to the public’s attention while immersed in a tank of ice water on the Late Show with David Letterman.

“After that you have 10 minutes of meaningful movement, and after that, at least one hour before you become unconscious due to hypothermia.”

The 1-10-1 principle relates to the three phases of cold water immersion: the cold shock response (characterized by uncontrollable gasping and shortness of breath), cold incapacitation (the eventual loss of muscle movement), and hypothermia.

Even more important than the basic principle, however, are the cautions that accompany it: Always wear a life-jacket, and whatever you do, don’t panic.

“Don’t panic – because you do have some time,” says Giesbrecht, an affiliate of FKRM’s Health, Leisure and Human Performance Research Institute who later repeated the boot camp process using American participants at a Coast Guard base on Lake Erie in Ohio. “And you can live a long time if your head is supported above the water, so wear a life-jacket. If you do have a life-jacket on, you could be unconscious for another hour or two and still be alive. Being unconscious won’t kill you, as long as you don’t drown.”

The information came as a surprise to many of those who took part in the tests, just as it did to the aforementioned 681 survey respondents (most of whom, it bears noting, were medical professionals, rescue workers, and outdoor enthusiasts). But as Giesbrecht points out, if more people knew about the 1-10-1 principle, their chances of survival would increase drastically.

“If you fall into the water and you think you’re going to become hypothermic within minutes, what are you likely to do? Panic. And panic kills people,” says Giesbrecht, who in the past few years has produced similar DVDs on winter road safety and how to escape a vehicle submerged in water.

“You’re trying to make decisions on what to do while you’re huffing and puffing uncontrollably, so you could die right there. As opposed to saying, ‘I’ve got lots of time to live here, I’ve just got to get my breathing under control, then I can do something intelligent.”

The Cold Water Boot Camp initiative was made possible here in Canada by a $425,000 federal grant from the Search and Rescue New Initiatives Fund.

To stream the DVD for free, or to order a free copy or learn more about the project, check out www.coldwaterbootcamp.com.

 
For more information, contact:
David Schmeichel
Communication, Promotion & Alumni Officer
Faculty of Kinesiology & Recreation Management
schmeich@cc.umanitoba.ca
Phone: (204) 474-8629