Any first responder on the scene of a drowning tragedy can tell you they will never forget the horrifying heartbreak of families and friends standing next to the river while rescuers try to locate their loved ones.
In many cases, these incidents are easily preventable.
This summer, we expect our local rivers to be running at levels not seen in decades, making an already dangerous situation even more perilous for anyone who goes in these cold and fast-running waters. Tragically, we’ve lost several lives on our rivers in recent years, and with the extreme conditions this summer we’re in serious danger to lose more.
Public education alone is not enough. Despite such local efforts in our community, a study last year on the Cedar River showed that 61 percent of our kids and 98 percent of our teenagers are not wearing PFDs.
That’s why the King County Council now has before it an emergency ordinance to require lifejackets (also known as personal flotation devices, or PFD’s) on King County rivers in unincorporated areas through the end of October this year.
We know that PFDs can save lives: The U.S. Coast Guard reports that between 85 and 90 percent of boating related drowning victims are not wearing life jackets. And a recent study indicates that wearing a PFD may potentially prevent one in two drowning deaths among recreational boaters.
A civil fine backs up this proposed requirement. Ideally, King County would cite very few people. In fact, we would prefer to ticket no one.
What this proposal calls for is for the Sheriff to give a first warning to swimmers and rafters –some of them children on air mattresses and floats designed for swimming pools – who may be unaware of the new requirement and the danger they are posing to themselves and to others who would risk their own lives if rescue were needed.
It is only for the scoff-laws who would swim or raft our swift, cold and dangerous rivers unprotected, after being warned by a uniformed deputy, that a ticket would be issued.
That’s why first responders like Eastside Fire and Rescue, King County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit, and Mountain View Fire and Rescue Swiftwater Team are overwhelmingly supporting this ordinance. It also has the strong backing of the Seattle Children’s Hospital, River Safety Council, American Red Cross of King and Kitsap Counties, State Parks and Recreation Commission, U.S. Coast Guard, and many more.
Professional, licensed rafting operators are a good alternative for those seeking river recreation. As you might imagine, all of the companies who provide this service insist on their customers wearing life vests.
We urge readers to recognize the merits of a life jacket requirement. Drowning tragedies on our rivers are preventable, and we can make a difference this summer through this common sense proposal that will help us enjoy the river safely.
Sue Rahr, King County Sheriff
Dr. David Fleming, Director, Public Health – Seattle & King County
Christie True, Director, King County Natural Resources and Parks