Personal flotation devices key to water safety

By Dick Mason, The Observer August 02, 2013 10:52 am

Bi-Mart employee Margy Tucker demonstrates the membrane inflatable technology involved in one life vest option designed to automatically self-inflate when the vest is submerged in water via an attached CO2 cartridge. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
Bi-Mart employee Margy Tucker demonstrates the membrane inflatable technology involved in one life vest option designed to automatically self-inflate when the vest is submerged in water via an attached CO2 cartridge. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)

Tragedy struck Jubilee Lake, which is 19 miles north of Elgin, on July 21 when Jeffrey Anspach, 51, of Walla Walla, Wash., drowned after a canoe he was in capsized.

The death of Anspach, who authorities said did not appear to be wearing a  personal floatation device, has heightened attention on area water safety. 

 Personal flotation devices should be at the heart of any water safety discussion, said Roger Cochran, a retired marine patrol deputy for the Union County Sheriff’s Department. Cochran was a marine patrol deputy in Union County from 1995 to 2005.  

He said personal flotation devices are particularly critical in this area because the water in lakes and reservoirs is cold for much of the summer. This means anyone tossed into  deep water can quickly succumb to hypothermia.

“Even expert swimmers do not last long (in cold water). The body shuts down,’’ Cochran said.

The race against hypothermia begins as soon as one falls into cold water. Cochran said most people can’t survive in the cold water they will encounter in the middle of lakes like Jubilee for more than 20 minutes.         

Swimming becomes difficult as hypothermia sets in. Anyone wearing a personal flotation device, though, will stay buoyant much longer, increasing their odds of being saved.

 “Personal flotation devices give rescuers a chance to get to you,’’ Cochran said.

Cochran believes that  Jubilee Lake is presently the most dangerous lake or reservoir in Union County  and will remain so for the remainder of the summer. 

The reason is that its water level does not come down in the summer like those of other lakes and reservoirs in Union County. 

This means that it remains chilly throughout the summer.

“Its status does not change. It stays cold,’’ Cochran said,

He said that the temperature of the water in the middle of the lake is about 45 degrees only a few feet below the surface. 

Jubilee Lake’s depth does not come down during the summer because its water is not drawn for irrigation and its evaporation rate is not high because of its physical characteristics.

 Regardless of the body of water one is in, PFDs are critical to safety, Cochran said. One reason is that often people who fall into water are unconscious because of a blow to the head or a medical condition like a diabetic coma. 

Anyone unconscious without a PFD has almost no chance of being rescued, but someone who is wearing one does, Cochran stressed. 

He noted that many people, particularly non-swimmers, panic and begin flailing when they fall into a body of water. This is the worst thing to do.

“If you fight, you will go down like a rock,’’ Cochran said.

The retired marine patrol deputy said people need to go against the grain of their instincts and remain calm.  Cochran encourages people to float on their backs with their arms outstretched. “Relax and let the water support you,’’ Cochran said.

Remaining relaxed on the water, of course, is much easier when one is wearing a personal flotation device. All watercrafts in Oregon must have enough personal flotation devices for each passenger, but only those age 12 and younger are required to wear them.

Cochran would like to see people of all ages required to wear PFDs. He said many boaters not wearing the PFDs they have on board assume they will have time to put them on before they are tossed into the water. 

This is rarely the case, Cochran said.

The PFDs needed by people water skiing or riding on jet skis are different than those of people in boats. 

The PFDs they wear must be impact rated since jet skiers and water skiers hit the water at velocity, which can knock PFDs off. Impact-rated PFDs will not come off if one is slammed into the water. 

“The water is pretty hard (when one hits it at velocity),’’ Cochran said. “An impact-rated PFD will not rip off when you hit the water.’’  

Inflatable PFDs

Cochran encourages people to wear inflatable PFDs. These inflate automatically when one hits the water because of a cartridge triggered by a sensor. People are more likely to wear them since they are so light.

“They are so comfortable you don’t know you have them on,’’ said Cochran, the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.

The Oregon State Marine Board does not recommend inflatable PFDs for children. One reason is that children may play with them and render them ineffective.       

People wearing non inflatable PFDs are urged to make sure the PFDs are in good condition before using them. 

“If you squeeze it and hear air, throw it away,’’ Cochran said.

He explained that the sound of air coming out indicates that there is a hole that will let water in.

“It will not only fail you, it will drag you down (because it will fill up with water),’’ Cochran said.

Boaters and jet skiers are also urged to properly put on their PFDs. A personal flotation device that is not put on properly is next to worthless. 

“If the straps are not snapped, for example, it will come off,’’ Cochran said. 

Making sure PFDs fit properly is also critical. This is particularly important for young children. A PFD which is too large for a child will come off. One which is too large for an infant can flip a child’s head into the water face first. 

Personal flotation devices are critical to water safety and so is the avoidance of alcohol. Oregon State Marine Board statistics indicate that at least 30 percent of fatal boating accidents in the state are alcohol related.

Cochran said that people operating watercrafts while intoxicated is not a problem in Union County. The reason is there are no large bodies of water in Union County where people camp for extended periods of time.

Drinking and boating is more of an issue in Baker County, said Baker County Sheriff Mitchell Southwick. He said this is because it has  large bodies of water including the Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon reservoirs along the Snake River, all which people camp along for extended periods.

The Baker County Sheriff’s Department usually makes three or four boating while under the influence of intoxicants arrests a year, Southwick said.

The Baker County Sheriff’s Department is often called outside the county to assist with searches for drowning victims. 

This is because it has a dive team which agencies in surrounding counties call upon to assist it. 

Last week, the dive team helped find the body of the drowning victim at Jubilee Lake. The team also assists with searches in other  areas, including counties on the Idaho side of Brownlee.

In 2012, the Baker County dive team was not called out to make any body recoveries. In 2011, it had to help make between two  to three, and several years before that it had to make four to five recoveries, Southwick saiid.    

The Baker County sheriff  said that sometimes the victims recovered were swimmers, but most of the time this is not the case.

“Usually it involves a boating accident,’’ Southwick said.

The Baker County Sheriff urges boaters to make sure that their craft is in good condition and are ready for all conditions they will encounter. 

“Be aware of changing conditions,’’ Southwick said. 

Boaters on Brownlee Reservoir need to be particularly aware of this because its waters change when drawdowns are made.

“When Brownlee is drawn down, the flow of the water increases,’’ Southwick said. 

This is only one reason why conditions become more treacherous when the water becomes shallower. 

“When the water drops, rocks are exposed,’’ Southwick said.