GIVE YOURSELF A FIGHTING CHANCE, WEAR A LIFE JACKET
By Gary Fletcher
Observer Staff Writer
ENTERPRISE Boaters and rafters greatly increase their chance of survival by wearing life jackets.
Thats the message from local agencies that gathered recently on the Wallowa River to hone their swift-water rescue skills.
A life jacket at least gives you a fighting chance for survival if something goes wrong, Wallowa County Deputy Sheriff Matthew Marmor said.
People can underestimate how quickly they can perish in cold water rapids, he said.
Marmor was among six members of the Wallowa County Search and Rescue Swift Water Rescue Team that gathered for training with Sam Bowman of the Wallowa County Marine Program and four members of the Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries.
During the training, the team saw people without life jackets boating on the river.
We realize water sports are for enjoyment, Marmor said. But in some situations, people may not have the two seconds it takes to don a life preserver. Loose safety devices will float on down the river.
Even team members in good physical condition, trained and experienced and wearing wet suits and life jackets, were quickly done in by the cold water, he said.
Within a few minutes they became chilled. This altered their abilities as their fine motor skills became impaired.
Water pulls heat from the body 25 times faster than air, Marmor said.
The average person without a wet suit can function about two minutes in 40-degree water before his body begins to shut down, team leader Glen McDonald said.
Even if he is holding onto a floating object, within 15 to 20 minutes he can no longer grip as he loses physical and mental abilities. This is due to the effects of hypothermia directing remaining warmth away from the extremities to keep the core organs alive.
Typically, a person will float one-third to one-half mile downriver before he can get to the bank. By that time, he probably cannot walk.
People on the bank trying to help have seen friends perish within 10 feet of them, because rescuers could not negotiate the swift water to reach the drifter.
A rule of thumb to remember is this: People cannot stand up against the current in fast water over knee deep, McDonald said.
People are advised to float on their back, feet downstream. Dont try to stand up until the water is shallow enough that your buttocks drag on the bottom.
Another fact is often overlooked. Its called cold water reflex, in which a persons throat seizes from the shock of his face hitting the water. He cant breath, and he goes to the bottom.
You can be the best swimmer, and that can happen to you, McDonald said.
Many drownings occur at this time of year. Early in the season, the water is cold and high, and many people are out of shape. Typical victims are young males. Alcohol often is involved.
The swift water rescue teams professional training is funded by Wallowa County hotel-motel tax receipts.