Planning for possibility of falling in cold water a life saver

Dec 17, 2021 at 11:00 am by WGNS

While no one plans on falling into cold water when visiting a Corps lake, planning for the possibility could be a life saver!

Trey Church, natural resource specialist and park ranger in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District’s Operation Section, said falling into cold water can be deadly, so it’s important to be prepared and know what to do to survive.

“Cold water is a significant safety concern for our visitors while hunting, fishing, or recreating at our projects,” Church said. “If you slip and fall in water below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, this can cause shock during the first minute of exposure. You can experience gasping and difficulty breathing, potentially followed by muscle failure, which can lead to drowning.”

Every year millions of people visit Nashville District’s 10 lakes in the Cumberland River Basin, which are Lake Barkley, Lake Cumberland, Laurel River Lake, and Martins Fork Lake in Kentucky, and Cheatham Lake, Old Hickory Lake, J. Percy Priest Lake, Cordell Hull Lake and Center Hill Lake in Tennessee. Visitors also enjoy Dale Hollow Lake, which is in both Kentucky and Tennessee. 

In the past three years there have been zero fatalities in the Cumberland River Basin between Nov. 1 and March 1 when temperatures are much colder. Nashville District officials are pleased with this safety record but want the public to be aware of the dangers of cold water and know what to do to avoid tragic outcomes.

During the winter months, when visitors go boating, often departing from one of 279 boat ramps or more than 17,000 marina slips on 201,385 water acres the Corps manages or leases on Nashville District's 10 lakes. In addition, visitors recreate at 283 recreation areas and 159,495 acres of public land along 3,800 miles of shoreline, hike on 119 hiking trails, and fish from one of 60 fishing docks and piers in the Cumberland River Basin.

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Church explained that recreating on the water or near the lake puts people at risk of falling and being immersed in freezing water. Planning is the key to surviving a fall into cold water and he recommends preparing a float plan to let someone know when and where someone plans to recreate. If a boater doesn’t return on time, someone knows to alert authorities to search and, if necessary, respond to an emergency, he added. 

“Letting someone know your whereabouts also holds true for anyone recreating on the shoreline,” Church said. “Reliable information and detailed notes can definitely make a difference in the outcome.”

Information provided by the National Water Safety Program at indicates that cold-water immersion follows four stages, starting with cold shock, followed by swimming failure, then hypothermia and finally post-rescue collapse. According to the site, most cold-water drowning fatalities are attributed to the first two stages, not hypothermia. 

Park Ranger John Poston at J. Percy Priest Lake on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee, said wearing an appropriately sized life jacket and dressing for the water temperature, not the air temperature, is important.

He explained that the initial shock of cold water causes involuntary gasping making it difficult to breath. Many people hyperventilate, faint, and drown, and cold-water exposure makes it difficult for someone to move their arms and legs, he added.

If self-rescue is not possible, the National Water Safety Program says actions to minimize heat loss should be initiated by remaining as still as possible in the Heat Escape Lessening Position (HELP), where knees are drawn to the chest with arms grasping them together, or simply huddling with arms around other survivors in a circle.  Additional layers of clothing can help to stay afloat by trapping air.

Movement can deplete energy faster and increase heat loss. Hypothermia is a condition in which the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Violent shivering develops which may give way to confusion and eventually cardiac arrest or unconsciousness.

Poston said if a person falls in the water and can get back in the boat or onto the shoreline, it is important to take immediate action to get dry as soon as possible. 

He recommends having an extra set of clothes, blankets, energy bars, extra hats, radio, and cell phone packed and handy for such an emergency. Drink warm liquids and get indoors or into a car with the heat on, and get out of the wind, he explained.

“It is important that you do not get into an environment that is too hot though. Roaring fires and submerging someone into warm water can put someone with hypothermia into shock, making the situation much worse,” Poston said.

The most important thing someone can do to stay safe with cold water and freezing temperatures is to wear a life jacket and have a throwable flotation device ready to toss to someone that needs it.

“The life jacket is important to be worn while on a boat because if you fall overboard then it is much easier to conserve body heat and to get back onto the boat or to shore,” Poston added. “A cell phone or radio can be used for alerting people in your area to come help you.”

Boaters can use channel 16 on the radio or dial 911 on a cell phone to call for emergency assistance.  

(The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at

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