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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

June 3, 2011 at 11:11 AM

Lifejackets could be mandatory to wear this summer on some King County rivers

With all the rivers roaring high from the heavy snowmelt in the mountains, King County is proposing a mandatory summer-long requirement for anyone swimming, floating or boating on rivers in unincorporated King County to wear life jackets.

A heightened risk to public safety has prompted King County Executive Dow Constantine, with the backing of a wide range of public safety and health officials, to call for the requirement.

“This proposal will help save lives,” Executive Constantine said in a news release. “River flows are unusually swift and cold this year due to a heavy mountain snowpack that is melting into King County rivers. Rivers are inherently dangerous places to play, but this year is bringing additional risks. The wearing of life jackets is as essential for swimmers and boaters as helmets for cyclists and seat belts for drivers.”

Also raising this year’s risk is a turbulent winter flood season that changed river channels and reoriented logs.

“The public needs to be aware that our rivers are even more dangerous than usual this summer,” said Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Phillips, Chair of the Council’s Transportation, Economy, and Environment Committee and sponsor of the proposed ordinance for introduction on Monday’s Council agenda. “Requiring swimmers, floaters, and boaters to wear life vests is a practical action that allows people to get out and enjoy our beautiful rivers without undue safety risks.”

If approved by the Council, the proposed emergency ordinance would be effective through this year’s summer recreation season, from the date of Council adoption until Oct.31.

The King County Sheriff would enforce the wearing of a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device, or PFD, in the unincorporated portions of the Snoqualmie, Tolt, Cedar, Green, White, Raging and Skykomish Rivers that run outside of cities.

First infractions for failure to wear a PFD would carry a warning, while subsequent infractions could result in a fine of up to $86.

“We support this proposal,” said Sheriff Sue Rahr. “The vast majority of river accidents to which our Marine Unit responds could have been prevented if recreationalists had simply worn a PFD, had been sober, or had a better understanding of the dangerous nature of rivers.”

This summer, officials will evaluate the program, along with feedback from emergency first responders and the public, to determine whether changes are appropriate and whether to propose that the requirement should become permanent.

The proposed ordinance calls for King County to notify residents of the new requirement by posting signs at primary access points to major rivers, and to promote life vest use in partnership with regional organizations focused on drowning prevention, such as Seattle Children’s Hospital and the Statewide Drowning Prevention Network.

“This ordinance will save lives and help assure activities on King County’s rivers will be both safe and fun,” said Dr. Linda Quan, emergency attending physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Wearing a life jacket is about being responsible: adults need to wear life jackets so they are prepared for emergencies and to set an example for children and teens. Wearing a life jacket is also about being water smart, keeping one’s self safe and others safe. Even with life jackets on, parents still need to watch children constantly and closely in and around water, and to also make sure a fitted life jacket is always worn.”

The proposal has the backing of the River Safety Council, the American Red Cross of King and Kitsap Counties; the Tulalip Tribes; the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission; Sector Puget Sound of the U.S. Coast Guard; the national non-profit American Whitewater organization of whitewater enthusiasts, river conservationists, and paddling clubs; and Mountain View Fire and Rescue in Auburn, whose Swift Water Rescue Team responds to incidents along the middle Green River.

“As an emergency responder to water-related emergencies on our rivers, I’ve seen first-hand how the use of PFD’s can make a difference,” said Mountain View Fire and Rescue Assistant Chief Robert Young. “With the wearing of life vests we can avoid needless tragedies.”

Between 85 and 90 percent of boating-related drowning victims are not wearing life vests, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, and a recent study indicated that at least half of those would have survived had they worn a PFD.

An average of 23 people perish in drowning accidents every year in King County, with nearly two-thirds occurring on open water, including rivers, lakes and Puget Sound, according to data gathered by Public Heath – Seattle & King County.

“The best drowning prevention on rivers is to stay out, but a PFD can be a lifesaver if you end up in the water,” said Dr. David Fleming, Director and Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County. “With especially fierce and cold river flows running this summer, requiring PFD use on our rivers is a sensible step to save lives.”

In a County study conducted last year, 61 percent of children under 12 and 98 percent of teenagers under 18 were observed not wearing PFDs when floating on the Cedar River. State law already requires that children 12 and under wear a Coast Guard approved life vest on vessels less than 19 feet long.

Several serious flooding events last winter reshaped river channels in King County, creating many new known and unknown hazards where banks have been undercut or large pieces of wood and sediment have been moved around. The Sheriff’s Office last month closed a one-mile section of the Cedar River due to a hazardous logjam that spanned the width of the river.

Meanwhile, the snowpack in some Cascade Range river basins is currently 200 percent of normal, which could lead to higher-than-normal and colder river flows well into the summer recreational season.

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