To help residents enjoy local waters this summer, several agencies in King County are banding together to increase water safety.
South King Fire and Rescue (SKFR), in partnership with the King County Fire Chiefs Association, hosted a water safety and drowning prevention demonstration on May 23 at Steel Lake Park in Federal Way.
This summer, two new resources are available to help South King County residents. A new life jacket loaner rack will be available at Steel Lake Park for swimmers, both children and adults, to borrow life jackets while swimming or playing in the water and return after use.
“Drowning prevention takes a community,” said Capt. Brad Chaney of SKFR. The life jacket loaner station is created in partnership with the City of Federal Way with life jackets donated by King County Parks.
Dr. Jessica Wall, an emergency room physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said drownings are the leading cause of unintentional injury-related deaths for Washington children ages 1 to 4.
“Access to and use of life jackets is one of the best lines of defense against drownings,” Wall said on May 23. There are over 200 locations throughout the state with loaner life jacket programs for children and adults.
By the time the child arrives in the emergency room, the primary injury to a child’s brain and lungs after a drowning can already have detrimental effects, Wall said.
Water safety classes and swimming lessons are important for both children and adults who spend time near water. Another tip for water safety is to provide constant attention to children near or in the water, even if they know how to swim or if a lifeguard is present.
“Again, it can just take a matter of moments,” Wall said.
Last year in King County, there were 29 preventable drowning deaths, said Tony Gomez, Violence and Injury Prevention manager for Public Health — Seattle & King County.
Over the past four years, there has been an average of 30 preventable drowning deaths each year.
“We continue to see elevated drowning death numbers in the Seattle-King County area,” Gomez said.
Drownings have not always been on the rise. In 2014-2018, Gomez said, there were approximately 18 drowning deaths per year and trending downward, he said.
Black residents are also overrepresented in these drowning deaths, while Black people make up 7% of the King County population, Black people have made up approximately 16% of the drowning deaths in the past five years, Gomez said.
From 2008 to 2011, there was a three-year period when no children died from drownings in the King County area.
Heat waves, an earlier start to the swimming season despite cold water temperatures, more boating and open-water swimming, and increased drug and alcohol use are reasons behind the uptick in drowning deaths, he noted.
In addition, pandemic-related budget cuts and personnel constraints have also contributed to the issue of drownings, due to a decrease in lifeguards at local swimming areas.
“Almost half the drownings happen in the summer months and over half [occur] in open water,” Gomez said, citing lakes, rivers and Puget Sound.
In some of King County’s lakes, the increase in temperature is the fastest officials have seen in 15 years, Gomez said. While this is beneficial in decreasing cold water shock, it may increase the number of swimmers and visitors to waterside areas.
“We’re going to see more people out there using our waters, and for the few lifeguarded beaches that are left, it means we [have] a higher risk as a population with that warmer water and warmer seasons,” Gomez said, praising the use of life jackets.
South King Fire and Rescue has 38 surface water rescue swimmers who are stationed throughout the fire district on all shifts.
“The reason they’re assigned like this across the district is so that they can rapidly deploy to any number of our 20-plus freshwater lakes … or the 12 miles of coastline that we cover here in the fire district,” Lt. Ann Hoag said. Hoag, a rescue swimmer, was awarded a Medal of Valor after saving a man who drove a car into the water off a boat launch in April 2021. Hoag dove underwater, shattered a window and pulled the man out of the vehicle, the Mirror previously reported.
Previously in 2019, two South King Fire and Rescue members Greg Garka and Dean Bastin also received Medals of Valor from the department after saving a woman’s life when she drove into the water off of a boat launch in the Redondo area.
Wetsuits, fins, a mask and a snorkel are the main equipment used by rescue swimmers. Hoag said rescue swimmers have the lowest operating budget of any of the department’s special rescue teams, and are responsible for the highest number of saves.
The new, red inflatable rescue boat will be in service this summer, allowing SKFR’s rescue swimmers to travel farther and faster out into the water. The boat’s platform provides a safe location for rescued victims to be brought back to land.
On average, SKFR responds to approximately 10 calls a year related to water rescues, according to the department, which includes watercraft rescues in Puget Sound, swift water rescues in rivers as part of a regional-asset rescue team, along with swimming and recreational water rescues.
Redondo Beach is the most common location for water rescue calls over the last five years, with Dash Point State Park being the second most popular location, according to the department.
Tips to help rescue swimmers:
– Call 911 right away. Seconds count in water rescue emergencies, Hoag said.
– Be realistic about your own swimming abilities.
– Remember a “last seen” point of a victim for the rescue swimmers to search.
How to be safe while swimming and near water:
– Be within arm’s distance of a young child or inexperienced swimmer who is in or near water.
– Use life jackets.