"Hopefully, we can avoid another tragedy in the future."

Despite Hollywood images of people skating and playing hockey on frozen winter lakes, walking on ice is dangerous — and can be deadly.

"Just stay off," said McPherson Fire Chief Jeff Deal. "You're not supposed to be on city ponds anyway. They're for wildlife."

On Jan. 6, two people — a mother and child — died after falling through ice on a lake in Moundridge. Since then, McPherson County law enforcement officials have responded to at least eight more reports of people walking on ice.

McPherson County residents tend to recognize the risks of walking on ice. As such, fall-ins are relatively rare. However, county colleges draw students from out-of-state who may not have grown up with the same sense of caution, and teenagers don't always recognize the danger.

"The ones I've dealt with are usually college-age or younger," said McPherson County Sheriff Jerry Montagne. "You get kids from Texas and Arizona who don't have a clue about the risks. They get out on the ice and think it's OK, and then, bam. They're not unintelligent, they just don't have the experience."

The fact is, it's impossible to tell whether ice is safe to walk on just by looking at it. Ice must be at least four inches thick before it can support a person's weight, but simply measuring thickness can't guarantee safety.

"Ice doesn't freeze uniformly. There are waves, thick and thin spots," Deal said. "You might measure three or four inches at one point near the edge, but walk out ten feet and it might only be a quarter inch thick."

In addition, not all ice is equally strong, so even thick ice may be too fragile to support weight.

According to the American Red Cross, the main threat is hypothermia, in which a person's body heat drops to a point where the heart and other organs can't work properly. Hypothermia can make it difficult to breathe and, if not treated quickly, lead to loss of consciousness and death.

Law enforcement officers respond to any reports of people walking on ice. However, because there are no specific ordinances against walking on ice, officers may only be able to give a warning.

"If we find someone walking on ice, we'll tell them to get off, but that's about all we have," Montagne said.

Those who do fall through ice into freezing water should remain calm and try to get out. The best bet is to retrace their steps, as this will most likely lead them toward the thickest, safest ice. After pulling themselves out, cold water victims should roll toward land to distribute weight and avoid falling in again.

The Red Cross does not recommend removing clothing in freezing water, as thick clothes act as insulation and delay the onset of hypothermia. Wet clothing should be removed once the victim is safely out of water and off the ice.

Bystanders should call 911 — not the fire department — so that emergency responders can begin coordinating rescue efforts. Those nearby can also reach for the victim with an arm, branch or pole, or throw the person a rope or line to help them get out.

Bystanders should never walk out on ice or enter water to rescue a victim, as they could easily become victims themselves.

The best bet, however, is just to stay off the ice entirely.

"Hopefully, we can avoid another tragedy in the future," Deal said.