Saturday, May 18, 2024

A life jacket can save you, said water rescue volunteer Marco Aurilio

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The City of Leavenworth and county agencies have been discussing ways to implement water safety among an increase in water rescues and drownings this summer.

 On July 20, multiple agencies including the City of Leavenworth, the County Commissioner’s office, Chelan County Sheriff’s Office, Chelan County Fire Districts, the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce and Cascade Medical met to discuss the growing water safety issue, said City of Leavenworth Communications Analyst Christie Voos.

 “It was a river safety meeting but part of the impetus for the meeting was that we had so many river rescues lately,” Voos said.

Part of the difficulty in implementing water safety policies on the city or county level is the complicated nature of legal jurisdiction and water. The meeting discussed plans as a multi-agency multi-jurisdictional community to discuss plans to collaborate on water safety, Voos said.  She said jurisdiction of rivers and whether rivers themselves can be privately owned is complicated

 “That is a very complex answer. It’s an entire book on its own. Certain rivers have certain ownership laws. The Icicle has different laws than the Wenatchee, for example. And I can’t speak to them more than that.”

While private companies that offer water recreation do a good job of educating people on water safety, Voos said “most if not all” rescues have been those not with a commercial company.  Serious rescues all have different circumstances, Voos said, but one of the most common places for rescues is the rapids after Barn Beach.

 On July 12, many water rescues occurred and a drowning occurred at Barn Beach. In the drowning, a Tacoma woman floating on a tube went too far in the river and drowned in the rapids downstream. CPR was initiated, but she was pronounced dead at the scene. The water temperature at Icicle Creek, a river near Barn Beach, was 58.2 degrees at 5 p.m., the time the drowning was reported, colder than average for August. The average water temperature at Icicle creek in Leavenworth in August is 62.2 degrees.  While there is no evidence that the woman at Barn Beach died of hypothermia, water that cold can still be dangerous. 58-degree water is cold enough to make someone hypothermic, said Marco Aurilio, swift water rescue technician and city council member.

“Fifty-eight degrees is relatively cold. I swim probably six months out of the year in the river, and a lot of that I put a wetsuit on,” Aurilio said. “For instance, in somewhere like Florida the water is closer to 70 or 80 degrees. It feels comfortable yet can still create hypothermia.”

Someone who is larger will get hypothermia more slowly than someone who is smaller, he said. Even though any water that is colder than your body temperature can cause hypothermia, the body is very resilient to hypothermia, Aurilio said.

 “They actually put people into a hypothermic state when they go into things like heart operations, cardiac surgery, something to just remember is that it does kind of suspend [damage done to your body], but at some point, you will just die,” he said

 One of the first signs of hypothermia is a changing level of consciousness, Aurilio said. If you feel like you are very confused, or you feel mentally shaky, or you feel less aware you should be aware that you are going into hypothermia and do what you can to get warmed up.

It may seem like on a triple-digit day, there is no way one could get hypothermia. However, hypothermia depends on the temperature of the water. The average body temperature is 98.6 degrees and if the water is colder than that you will eventually get hypothermic.

 “When you get into a body of water you have your heat exchange area which is your body, your surface area,” Aurilio said. “And as the water contacts your body if it’s hotter than your body like a hot tub you warm up”. But if it is colder than your body you cool off.” Many people survive hypothermia. In the case of an unnamed couple in their forties stranded in Lake Wenatchee after their boat capsized that July 12 day, life jackets made a difference. Those life jackets likely saved the couple's lives, said Lake Wenatchee Fire Chief David Walker.

Walker said that Lake Wenatchee Fire and Rescue Responded to the couple stranded in the middle of Lake Wenatchee and that the two were successfully rescued. He said that although the couple displayed signs of hypothermia, the two successfully recovered and should not face any long-term effects due to being in the cold water for so long.

Aurilio echoes the importance of life jackets. “Yes, a personal flotation device is mandatory in a river that is flowing and will sweep you up, “he said. “For someone who doesn’t know how to swim, a PFD will save you, it will lower your risk of drowning.”

In rapids, a life jacket won’t completely keep your head above water, but it will allow you to reach the surface of the water to breathe periodically, Aurilio said. While a life jacket isn’t a “magic bullet” in most cases it will keep you from drowning, he said.

 Lake Wenatchee Fire and Rescue weren’t the only ones to respond to the call,  Lake Wenatchee YMCA Director Tim McElravy assisted the couple as well. Before Lake Wenatchee Fire and Rescue had been able to respond to the rescue, camp staff came into the office to tell McElravy there were people out on the water calling for help, so he went down to the lake.

“I could hear him yelling for help. That’s when I called 911,” McElravy said. “They were out right smack dab in the middle of the lake… so the easiest way to get to them was, I know the fire department has a rescue boat, but it takes them a few minutes to get to them in the water. So, I just hopped in the truck, hooked up the jet ski, and launched the jet ski.”

McElravy said that he was able to help one victim out of the water and by the time he went back to get the second victim the fire department was rolling into Lake Wenatchee.  He said that he has rescued people from Lake Wenatchee outside of the YMCA in the past but has not had problems with those at the YMCA needing to be reduced.

He said that Lake Wenatchee Fire and Rescue did an outstanding job with the rescue. He said the fire department got the couple out of the water, warmed them up and took them to the hospital. 

Although Lake Wenatchee is adjacent to Lake Wenatchee State Park, the park does not have any jurisdiction over rescues. The responsibility for rescues in general falls to the Sheriff’s Department and the park partners with Lake Wenatchee Fire and Rescue for incidents in Lake Wenatchee.

“Lake Wenatchee State Park has an agreement with Lake Wenatchee Fire and Rescue for them to respond to incidents that occur within the park. Park staff do not perform and are not involved in boat water rescues,” said Sarah Dettmer, State Parks spokesperson.

The city and the county are aware of the water rescue and drowning issues in the area, which is why they are working to create a plan to try to increase the water safety. The meeting discussed a short term, medium term, and long-term plan to help with water safety, Voos said.

In the short term, the City of Leavenworth volunteered to put out signs that let people know the river is cold, the water is swift, and life jackets should be worn. The signs have recently been deployed.

It isn’t totally clear what a pattern of everything that contributes to someone needing a water rescue is, Voos said, but this is going to be looked into. Current solutions in Leavenworth include Cascade Medical providing more life jackets and involving the fish hatchery in the life jacket program. The life jackets are supposed to be returned, but some seem to be taking them home permanently.  “Some of the life jackets are disappearing,” Voos said. “Technically, they are [supposed to be returned]. But all the agencies have determined that if they walk away [with a life jacket] that’s ok, it means they are still being safe in the water somewhere else.”

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