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World expert in cold water survival hosts workshop at Offshore Safety and Survival Centre

By Stephanie Barrett

Michael Petten spent 100 minutes in the cold Atlantic waters on May 30, 2007, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, after a fire aboard the Nautical Legacy forced everyone in the water.

Using a buoy to keep him afloat and feeling very cold, at no point did he panic or lose consciousness. Mr. Petten survived to tell his story at a cold water immersion boot camp, hosted by Dr. Gordon Geisbrecht, a world expert on "freezing to death" and the science of cold water survival.

Krista Parsons, an instructor with the Marine Institute's Offshore Safety and Survival Centre (OSSC), attended the boot camp as part of the Canadian Safe Boating Council's annual conference, held in Newfoundland this past September.
"The workshop included both classroom and on the water activities," said Ms. Parsons. "Topics included mechanism of heat loss, thermal protection realities, triage of the hypothermic victim, extraction techniques, re-warming, packaging for transport and the experience of cold water immersion."

A group of participants had the opportunity to experience the effects of cold water immersion response.

"Dr. Geisbrecht had the volunteers enter the 10 Celsius waters of Conception Bay wearing ordinary clothes and a personal floatation device (PFD) for about 30 minutes," added Ms. Parsons. "Even after 30 minutes of immersion, the individuals were in no way hypothermic."

Dr. Geisbrecht explained that most participants may have died within a few minutes after cold water immersion if they were not wearing a PFD or lifejacket. Panic or poor decision-making are often the cause of death rather than hypothermia or drowning.

He went on to say the outcome is interesting because cold water immersion is still poorly understood by the general public. A common belief is that immersion in very cold water, even with protective clothing, results in death from hypothermia in minutes. Few people understand that it takes more than 30 minutes for individuals who fall into icy water while wearing winter clothing to become clinically hypothermic.

"Dr. Geisbrecht explained to great lengths that these incorrect assumptions have serious implications because believing that death from hypothermia is imminent can result in panic and poor decision-making, making a bad situation worse, even fatal," Ms. Parsons said. "One unfortunate outcome of this erroneous belief is the fatalistic attitude of many commercial fishermen that, even if a PFD is worn, they have no hope of survival if they accidently fall overboard in cold water."
Dr. Geisbrecht is a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Manitoba where he operates the Laboratory for Exercise and Environmental Medicine where he studies human responses to exercise and work in extreme environments. He has conducted hundreds of cold water immersion studies and has used himself as a test subject for his own research and believes he has been hypothermic about 40 times during his research career. He has also been featured on the Discovery Channel and The Late Show with David Letterman, and hauled a sled on a solo expedition of Lake Winnipeg that covered 450 kilometres in 26 days.