State's recent drownings illustrate need for life jackets

A woman wears an orange life jacket. - Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use
A woman wears an orange life jacket.
— image credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use

In what seems to be an unfortunate summer tradition, a spate of recent drownings throughout the state has Department of Health (DOH) officials reminding everyone that life jackets are a necessary item when enjoying the state's waterways.

Approximately 71 percent of the more than 100 people who accidentally drown in Washington annually lost their lives on open water — rivers, lakes, Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean.

About 30 percent of them were riding in a boat at the time. The DOH reports that the highest rate of drowning occurs among ages 15-24. Drowning is also the second leading cause of injury death for children age 14 and younger. Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death for those under age 50.

"Life jackets save lives," said Dr. Maxine Hayes, state health officer. "And not just of children. In just two weeks in mid-July, three people drowned in northeast Washington near Spokane. That includes some young adults, and none were wearing a life jacket. Three young people have also lost their lives in Lake Tapps in Pierce County this year, and these tragedies happen all over the state. It's sad, because drowning is often preventable, either with life jackets or adults supervising children."

Public health providers, hospitals, law enforcement, local retailers and Safe Kids groups statewide are joining together to increase awareness about the need to wear a life jacket. Most counties in the state also have life jacket loaner programs, according to the DOH.

"Of the 10 body recoveries out of the Spokane River this year, none were wearing a life jacket," said Deputy Patrick Bloomer, coordinator of the Spokane Sheriff's Office Marine Enforcement Unit. "There are well over a dozen cases where people rescued themselves before rescuers arrived because they were wearing life jackets. Those are just the ones reported to 911."

The DOH advises that when children are near the water, one adult should be the designated "water watcher." Many drowning deaths in children occur when they're surrounded by adults who are not fully paying attention to the child's activity.

The DOH suggests that adults avoid distractions while near the water with children, again because of the quickness with which a normal situation can become a nightmare.

About half of drowning victims never intended to be in the water at all, the DOH notes. Usually on a boat for fishing or other recreation, those who fall overboard find themselves in cold and swift running water that shocks their system and makes their chances of surviving slim.

2012 has been rife with drowning deaths, according to the DOH. A father and his son lost their lives on Lake Limerick when their canoe capsized and neither was wearing a life jacket. The life jackets were discovered in the boat by investigators.

A 14-year-old boy was swept under by a powerful undertow at an ocean beach near Westport, while a 10-year-old boy in Bellevue nearly lost his life in a swimming pool surrounded by people. Another 14-year-old's life was claimed by the Snake River, when his fishing boat capsized. A 24-year-old man drowned in the Naches River when he randomly stopped for a quick swim on a hot day.


The DOH's Water Recreation website can be found at The Seattle Children's Hospital and Research Foundation also has a good resource for information on water safety at


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