Swim safety urged after 42 B.C. drownings

Tri-City News

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With the continued hot weather — and in a week when a man lost his life in Buntzen Lake — the Lifesaving Society BC and Yukon Branch is urging people to pay attention to water conditions and to know their own limits when recreating in local creeks, streams and at the seaside.

“Obviously, the good weather brings more people onto the water and that is gong to increase the potential for drowning,” said Dale Miller, executive director of the society, which educates the public about water safety and trains lifeguards.

A warning sign at Buntzen Lake. Beach-goers need to take extra precautions because the lake bottom drops off quite steeply near the shore when the water is low. This week a man drowned at the popular lake.
Photograph By DIANE STRANDBERG

Already, 42 people have died in B.C. waterways this summer, including two people who drowned at Buntzen Lake.

The latest victim, a 47-year-old Burnaby man, apparently disappeared under the surface of the water at about 4 p.m. Tuesday. His body was subsequently recovered by the RCMP’s underwater recovery team.

Miller, who grew up in Coquitlam and is familiar with Buntzen Lake, said he is saddened by the news that the water reservoir has claimed another victim. The lake has steep drop-offs and while orange lifesaving devices are available at two kiosks on the beach front, and there are warning signs about the drop offs, there are no buoys indicating where the drop-off is located or to indicate a boundary that beach-goers, especially non-swimmers, should not cross.

“The the water drops off to being deep water. People have to be conscious of that. One of the things we always say, too, is they need to know their own limits,” Miller said.

NO LIFEGUARDS

There is no lifeguard at Buntzen Lake. In fact, no Tri-City beaches have lifeguards, something the Lifesaving Society would like to see change.

The city of Vancouver has mandated lifeguards be posted at its beaches and a proposal to eliminate them in 2012 was strongly opposed. The city of Surrey has a lifeguard at Crescent Beach.
In all, there are 19-lifeguard supervised water in B.C., 11 in Vancouver, one on a river, four on lakes and 14 on ocean fronts.

BC Hydro confirmed it had staff at the lake on Tuesday when the drowning accident occurred as part of regular safety initiatives that include beach and trail patrols by staff with first aid training, numbers of which have increased since the warm weather began.

“We do have a boat that goes out to make sure the people who are using the lake are being safe,” a BC Hydro spokesperson said. As well, RCMP patrol the lake area on busy weekends.
Mora Scott also said BC Hydro will be reviewing its safety plans as a result of the most recent death.

But regardless of how many lifesavers are on hand, Miller’s organization would like to see Grade 3 and 7 students taught a swimming survival program to reduce the number of drowning deaths. His group wants the province make the Lifesaving Society’s Swim to Survive program mandatory in all schools.

“We’re very strong on the need for every child to learn to swim and the Swim to Survive program is not swim lessons but it is certainly providing some survival skills, so if there’s an accidental fall into deep water, there are some skills that children can use and hopefully these are skills they will retain as an adult.”

BE VIGILANT

With so many non-swimmers enjoying the water and limited rescue services, it’s increasingly important for beach-goers to be cautious around the water and to watch every member of their family when they are enjoying the water.

Inflatable toys are not suitable as a water safety device — they can easily float beyond reach in an accident — and Miller recommends people not go into deep water if they cannot swim.
Drowning is a silent killer and people can quickly go under, and as they struggle for air, may not come up again.

At Buntzen, water levels fluctuate, with the deeper water often close to the shore, deceiving swimmers as to the lake’s safety.
Hydro confirmed that it has signs around the lake, warning people about the deep water.

If someone does seem to be having difficulty in the water, a potential rescuer should consider the “ladder of risk” and not put themselves in harm’s way, Miller said.

“We want people to start with the least risk to themselves, so that would be talking someone in if they’re that close. Next would be reaching out to someone or throwing something to the person. The last resort would be to go into the water yourself.”

The orange safety device often seen at beaches, including Buntzen Lake, can be used to tow a person to safety, if thrown, and can be used to get out to the struggling person and bring them back.
“Both can hang on and kick their way back in. Once they have that security of the life ring, they will calm down if they are in a panic state,” Miller said.

He advises being cautious of trying to rescue a person without the safety of a life ring because a struggling individual will do anything they can to get air into their lungs, including standing on their rescuer, putting the rescuer at risk of drowning.

The Lifesaving Society also sells lifesaving rings, called PAL (Public Access Lifering) for cities and other jurisdictions to install at their beaches.

More information about drowning prevention is available at www.lifesaving.bc.ca/watersmart. Local pools and the Canadian Red Cross have swimming lessons available; check your city’s parks and recreation listings for upcoming dates.