Learning to Be Safe in Dangerous Waters

TRUCKEE, CA - About 400 students and community members heard from first responders and Coast Guard Auxiliary members on Wednesday. The topic was cold-water survival techniques, a subject that for many hits close to home.

“In early January we had a canoe that turned over in Donner Lake,” Truckee Fire District Public Safety and Information Officer Gene Welch said. “It was in about ten feet of water and the female made it to shore but the male drowned in about 10 feet of water very close to the shore.”

The Coast Guard Auxiliary says a lot of people don’t realize just how dangerous cold water can be.

“Cold water immersion – the muscle incapacitation you suffer, the muscles and nerves don’t connect anymore and you’re just sitting there,” Flotilla Commander Jerry Gilmore said.

That point was illustrated with a DVD documentary of a cold-water boot camp.

“These are very strong people that jump into 45-degree water,” Gilmore said. “And you see them take four or five strokes and then just start shivering and rescue swimmers have to come help them.”

The swimmers had a much easier time when given life vests.

“We just don’t emphasize enough that a life vest doesn’t do any good if you’re not wearing it or you don’t have it at hand,” Gilmore said. “Be prepared when you’re around water, especially cold water, that a vest is the thing that is going to save your life.”

First responders say anyone on the water should be prepared to go in it – even if that’s not in the plans.

“They should never be on the water without a personal flotation device and they should be dressed for the water even if they’re on a boat,” Welch said. “Especially people on paddle boards and kayaks because they end up going in the water more times than not. It’s really helpful if they’ve practiced how to get back on their equipment before they’re forced to do it in a real-life setting.”

He says being aware of your surroundings is also helpful in emergencies, especially when dialing 911.

“We’ve had instances in our department where our response has been delayed by ten minutes where a call came in via cell and was directed to another fire department,” Welch said.

In a lot of cases involving freezing water, those ten minutes can make a big difference.

“It’s called the one-ten-one rule, you’ve got a minute to get your breath under control,” Gilmore said. “Then you have ten minutes to effectively rescue yourself. Beyond that you’ve got between thirty minutes and two hours to be rescued. If you have a life vest on, that’s the key because after ten minutes, if you don’t have a life vest on, you’re gone.”

The Coast Guard Auxiliary works to support the active-duty Coast Guard, helps ensure boater safety and educates residents on proper procedures and techniques.

“We all enjoy giving back,” District 11NR SO-OP Jack Leth said. “A lot of us are retired and thought about what we can do to give back to the community. Those of us that did things around water somehow gravitated to the Coast Guard Auxiliary. We are a force multiplier for the Coast Guard; they only have 20 people here so anything we can do to help them lighten the load helps. We’re volunteers so we don’t get paid but we love doing it.”

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