Deceptive waters

MONROE — The mood is jovial when the patient is plastic.

On June 15, Monroe firefighters ran one of many rescue drills on the Skykomish River.

A mannequin was in danger on Buck Island, upriver from the Lewis Street boat launch.

Firefighter Patrick Gjerde briefed the crews. He

reminded them not to let their adrenaline run the rescue. “When you see your victim, don’t get tunnel vision,” he said.

The firefighters joke around, but they know they’ll get the call.

Rescue crews in Snohomish County see it all, every summer: whitewater rafting gone wrong, smashed b

oats on suburban lakes, and people pitched into storm-tossed waves. Since 2008, at least six people have died in boating-related accidents in the Snohomish County area. One was on the Skykomish River, two were on Lake Stevens, and one on Lake Armstrong, near Arlington.

The most recent deaths were in a May 7 weather-related capsizing between Everett and Camano Island.

The boat starts to roar up the Skykomish. Aboard, it’s already cold and wet, even in the fancy rescue gear.

Crews often head out with little information about the situation at hand, said Jamal Beckham, a Monroe firefighter and paramedic.

From the rescue boat, he points to downed trees in the water. Those branches can snag a swimmer, he said.

As the boat nears Buck Island, firefighter Rusty Hunt’s eyes scan the water, looking for a hint of human life.

They spot the body. It’s face down. They jump out.

Craig Fisher, a firefighter and paramedic, administers aid while they get the mannequin backboarded.

Multiple times, he yells, “Sir, can you hear me?”

The mannequin is silent. The river rushes past.

As spring turns to summer, people who work in public safety in Snohomish County turn a wary eye to the water.

Snohomish County sheriff’s Lt. Rodney Rochon is one of the state’s foremost experts on water safety and water rescues.

The sheriff’s office gets called out all over to assist in rescues, from salt water to suburban lakes to roaring rivers in the Cascade Range, Rochon said. Each scenario requires different training, equipment and techniques. Wind, temperature and current vary.

The majority of rescue calls come from the rivers, Rochon said. Those also are the hardest operations to conduct.

Rescuers have to work in a constantly changing environment, while operating a boat with people in the water.

The rivers are particularly bad this year. They are running high, cold and fast. Winter flooding knocked downed trees and other debris. That’s created an abundance of potential death traps, such as “strainers.” Those are trees, root balls and branches that can catch people, pin them and ultimately drown them.

Drinking while boating and not wearing life jackets are two common factors in boating deaths, statewide and nationally.

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission’s Boating Program keeps track of all boating-related fatalities in the state. The U.S. Coast Guard releases annual data for the country. Concerned about privacy, Washington is one of several states that decided to opt out of allowing the Coast Guard to share its data.

The state’s boating program keeps count to learn why people die on the water and what can be done to prevent those tragedies, program specialist A.J. Parlan said. They use the data to prepare education campaigns. The program also oversees the distribution of federal grants for police patrols on the water.

The information isn’t perfect. It draws mostly off police reports. Bodies aren’t always recovered. Agencies may hesitate to fill in boxes if they aren’t certain. For example, a police officer may not know if somebody’s life jacket slipped off once they were in the water.

The boaters who seem to most often end up in need of rescue are middle-aged hunters and anglers, Rochon said. They may be focused on their sport and don’t necessarily consider boating safety. Somebody may stand up to reel in a big fish and fall over the side. It is common to wear heavy gear that can fill with water.

Also at risk are men in their early 20s, Rochon said. They’re more likely to try to impress their friends. They also may use personal watercraft inappropriately.

In general, the most common vessels used by people who end up in peril are power boats between 16 and 20 feet and cheap inflatable rafts, Rochon said.

People get into trouble fast on rafts that aren’t intended for rivers, he said.

“It doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s a bad, bad choice to use.”

On Lake Stevens, the big boating worry is crowding, Police Chief Randy Celori said. A huge variety of vessels all use the same space.

Lake Stevens police don’t see many problems with boozing boaters, but they do write a few tickets every year for people not wearing life jackets, he said.

People need to buy life jackets suitable for whatever they’re doing, he said. Life jackets that are safe for paddling might not help in a high-speed crash. Cute or fancy life jackets may not cut it.

On Buck Island, the Monroe firefighters move in unison across the sandy, rocky shore, carrying the victim.

The backboarded mannequin is placed aboard.

Beckham calls out, “Patient’s packaged!” He motions with his hand for Hunt to hit the gas.

The crew heads back toward the boat launch, circling back to return the mannequin for the next drill.

They take the long way back. The water is jade underneath a canopy of trees. From the surface, jagged tree roots stab the sky.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com

Water safety tips

•Wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket at all times. Even good swimmers need to wear one; gentle stretches of water can have wicked undercurrents.

Never use innertubes and rafts designed for swimming pools.

Know your limits; do not attempt a section of river beyond your skill level.

Pay attention to weather and water conditions. Wear wool clothing or a wet suit and dress for the water temperature. If the water temperature and air temperature combined total 100 degrees or less, wear protective clothing.

Enter cold water slowly.

Avoid swimming near boat ramps or in boating areas.

Avoid downed trees, snags and confluences.

If your vessel capsizes, float on your back, feet together and pointed downstream. If you go over a ledge or drop, tuck into a ball.

If you’re caught in a fast flowing river or rapids, try to float feet first in a half-sitting position. Release your craft only if it improves your safety. Stay upstream, away from the boat.

Source: Snohomish County police and fire officials

Got a boating card?

A $10 boater education card is good for life — and cheaper than the $87 fine for not carrying one.

This year, people 35 and younger are required to complete a training course and have the card to operate any boat with a motor 15 horsepower or greater. Older boaters do not have to have the card this year, but the age requirement is scheduled to rise every year for the next few years.

For more information, visit www.parks.wa.gov/boating/ or call 360-902-8555. Home study, online and traditional classroom options are available.

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