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Summertime fun sometimes turns deadly

Clackamas County officials say wearing a life jacket could save your life
by: Patrick Sherman,

Following a spate of drowning deaths in Clackamas County, law enforcement and public safety officials are warning the public about the deadly hazards of summertime fun in the water.

'The second incident we had this season was a young guy, 29 - a good swimmer, avid floater - he got complacent and didn't wear a life jacket,' said Deputy Robert Wurpes with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office Marine Unit.

'Your attitude is really important,' added Deputy Doug Olsen, also with the marine unit. 'People head out on the river and they think, 'This is an easy float - nothing is going to happen to me.''

With six people dead in the rivers and lakes across the county - and more than 25 so far this summer in Oregon - the threat is real.

'With the hot weather we had towards the end of June and again in July, people just can't cool off,' said Capt. Fred Charlton, who serves on the Clackamas County Fire District No. 1 water rescue team. 'There are a lot of waterways all over this county, and people jump in to cool off.

'I think that they underestimate the water - the currents, the temperature and other hazards, like submerged rocks and debris. They also overestimate their own abilities - their ability to swim is the biggest thing.'

The low water levels in many rivers and streams are also contributing to the high level of incidents this summer, according to Charlton.

'When we have high water, people can walk four or five feet out from shore and be up their waist, to cool off,' he said. 'With the water levels down, they have to walk much further away from the bank, and when they hit the channel, it can drop off suddenly.'

The main channel also brings with it swift currents which can carry an unprepared swimmer away or pull them underwater.

'As you struggle, you're using up valuable energy, and the longer you're in the water, the greater the risk of hypothermia,' said Charlton.

Boaters also put themselves in peril by either not wearing life jackets or even stowing them where they cannot be easily accessed in an emergency.

'I'm seeing a lot more people tying their life jackets to their rafts,' said Olsen. 'They are strapping the life jackets to the boat, and the boat doesn't need saving.'

Wurpes continued, 'Before you know it, you're in deep trouble, and it's far too late for you to don your life jacket.'

Children age 13 and younger are required by law to wear personal flotation devices, but even this may not be sufficient to save them if their caretakers are unprepared.

'I see a lot of parents with young children, four or five years old, and the kids are wearing their life jackets, but the parents don't have one on,' Olsen said. 'My question is: Will those young children be able to save themselves if their parents are struggling just to stay afloat.

'I recommend that parents also wear their life jackets, at least going through the rapids. It teaches the kids a valuable lesson.'

Charlton urged citizens to dial 9-1-1 at the first sign of a problem, because it can take time for water rescue crews to arrive at the scene of an incident.

'With an engine company, our average response time is like three or four minutes,' he said. 'With the boat, it's more like 10 minutes, because we have to get our gear on and tow the boat to a place where we can put it in the river, and then we have to find the incident - there aren't addresses on the river.'

He urged callers to provide detailed information to emergency operators about the location and the victim, and to use bystanders to direct rescue crews to the scene of the accident.

'There are a few simple things people can do to stay safe,' Charlton said. 'Swim with a buddy, stay close to shore, don't mix alcohol with swimming or boating, know your limitations and stay out of the current.'

Olsen offered an even simpler formula for staying safe: '80 percent of all drownings could have been prevented if the victim had been wearing a life jacket. Wear a life jacket - it isn't going to work unless you're wearing it.'