Water words: Be careful


Staff writer

As the weather heats up and people start heading to local lakes, rescue workers and swim instructors are warning adults and kids alike to swim and play safely.

Federal Way Fire Department spokeswoman Debbie Goetz said nobody drowned in Federal Way last year, but the year before was pretty bad.

It started in May 2001, when a 21-year-old man tried to swim across Five Mile Lake, got tired and slipped under the water. His friends called the fire department and divers found his body about 40 minutes later.

Two months later, an 8-year-old girl disappeared in the same lake. Divers found her body two days later trapped under the dock.

That same summer, firefighters responded to several near drownings at lakes and pools across the city.

And while Federal Way Fire didn’t respond to any drownings last year, other South King County agencies did. Last summer, a Federal Way teenager who attended Fife High drowned trying to swim in the Green River.

From 1998 to this year, Kent Fire responded to four drownings in Lake Fenwick, near Federal Way, and one in Lake Meridian.

Among the many safety tips rescue workers offer lake visitors, Goetz said they encourage people never to swim across any of the local lakes.

Lt. Pat Pawlak, spokesman for Kent Fire, which responds to Lake Fenwick, said older teenagers and adults frequently misjudge distances over water. A floating dock that appears to be about 50 feet from shore can actually be closer to 50 yards away. “What they think is relatively close is actually much farther,” he said.

Still, if someone decided to give it a shot, Goetz said the swimmer should be aware of when he or she is starting to get tired. “Don’t keep swimming until you’re exhausted,” she said. “If you go beyond that point, you’re going to slip under the water silently.”

If a swimmer knows he or she is starting to wear out, he or she should try to float, tread water and call for help.

Waves and currents in lakes and rivers exacerbate a swimmer’s progress — like riding a bike into the wind — and bring on fatigue more quickly than anticipated. Pawlak said open water swimming is much different than swimming in a pool.

Fatigue is one of the biggest factors that lead to drowning, Pawlak said. In adults over 21 years old, alcohol or drugs play a role, too.

In 2002, 22 people drowned in King County, Pawlak said. None of the victims under 21 had been drinking or using drugs but almost 70 percent of those over 21 had used alcohol or drugs before getting in the water.

Federal Way Fire doesn’t currently have a program to go into schools to teach kids basic water safety, Goetz said.

School district spokeswoman Deb Stenberg said Federal Way Public Schools doesn’t have a districtwide water safety program either. Any water safety education is provided on an individual school basis. Federal Way High teacher Bev McIrvin said she covers water safety in her swimming class, but Stenberg wasn’t aware of any other teachers providing water safety.

Kent Fire is in the process of gathering information to start water safety program for students this year. One of the department’s public education specialists is working with Mary Bridge in Tacoma, which has a variety of children’s water safety education programs in place, as well as with the state Drowning Prevention association to build the program, Pawlak said.

In addition to knowing how to tread water or float, lake visitors should know how to rescue someone, Goetz said. All it takes is throwing the floundering person something that floats or something to hang onto until help arrives.

And if witnesses see a swimmer slip under the water, Goetz said, they should try to mark the spot so divers can find them when they arrive.

Pawlak said adult supervision is one of the most crucial safety tools for younger kids. The supervision has to be active and deliberate — parents or supervisors can’t be reading or sun tanning.

He added three important points to water safety:

• Know the water. “A lot of times, people go to a lake and they’re not familiar with how quickly it drops off or how cold it is,” he said.

• Know physical limitations and know children’s limitations.

• Wear a life jacket, especially in a lake or river.

Kenneth Jones pool manager Tara Austin said their swimming instructors teach kids important basics during swimming lessons, like swimming with a buddy at all times, letting parents know where they are and not pursuing things that are floating away lest they step into suddenly deep water.

Instructors also teach kids how to be comfortable in the water and how to bob to safety, pushing off from the bottom of the pool toward shallower water.

During some water safety lessons, the kids take off their goggles and floatation devices so they can learn to take care of themselves if they end up in the water without them.

Still, Austin said the swimming lessons can only do so much.

“Parents have to bring them in and help make them comfortable,” she said. “And parents need to participate, too. If the kids have to wear (personal floatation devices), the parents have to wear them, too.”

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