Water Safety for Lakes, Rivers, and Beaches

Sheryl Schumacher
Ravalli County Public Health
205 Bedford, Suite L
Hamilton, Montana

Know the Water: Montana waters can be appealing and dangerous at any time of the year.

Swimming Smarts "Buddy up!" Learning to swim... Is the best thing anyone can do. It is never too late! Supervise children at all times when around water. Unexpected medical emergencies can happen in any body of water. Never swim alone, wear a properly fitted life jacket (also known as a personal flotation device, or PFD) when in or near the water. A fun event can turn tragic in an instant because of strong currents, big waves and strong tides.

Know your limits: Do not go beyond your abilities. Even the strongest swimmers are no match to the power of water.

Swim in safe areas only: Swimming in an open body of water (like a river, lake or ocean) is different from swimming in a pool. The distances across bodies of water are always farther than they appear! More energy is needed to handle the currents and other changing conditions in open water. Potential hazards for swimmers range from polluted water which can cause a variety of health problems, to hidden underwater objects, murky water, log jams, unexpected drop-offs and aquatic plant life.

Be careful about diving: Check the depth. Use caution before taking the leap. Make sure there are no hidden rocks or other hazards. Underwater objects may appear deeper than they are. Diving injuries can cause head injury, permanent spinal cord damage, paralysis, and sometime even death. Drowning can occur very quickly because of unconsciousness due to head injuries.

Check out rafts and docks: Be sure that rafts and docks are in good condition. Free of loose boards and exposed nails and never swim under a raft or dock.

Avoid drainage ditches and arroyos. What is an arroyo? "A steep-sided gully cut by running water in an arid or semiarid region." They transform quickly into raging rivers after heavy rains. Fast water and debris in the current can quickly take a life.

Getting too cool. Your body temperature drops far more quickly in water than it does on land. Monitor yourself when swimming in cold water and stay close to shore. If you feel your body start to shiver or your muscles cramp up, get out of the water quickly; it doesn't take long for hypothermia to set in. What is hypothermia? "Hypothermia is a potentially dangerous drop in body temperature, usually caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures."

Alcohol and water never mix. Never mix alcohol or other drugs with water activities; these substances can affect judgment, coordination and the ability to self-rescue.

Boating Safety
More people die in boating accidents every year than in airplane crashes or train wrecks. One third of boating deaths are alcohol related. Make sure the captain or person operating the boat or water craft is experienced and competent. The U.S. Coast Guard warns about a condition called boater's fatigue, which means that the wind, noise, heat and vibration of the boat all combine to wear you down when you're on the water. Anyone being towed by a boat must wear a life jacket. Always have a spotter when towing people who are skiing, wake boarding or riding on an inflatable. There must be a wearable life jacket (Type I, II, or III) for each person on vessels less than 16 feet long (including canoes and kayaks of any length.) Vessels 16 feet and longer must have one Type I, II or III life jacket for each person on board. In addition, one U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type IV throwable device must be on board and be immediately available for use.

Jet skis. If you're operating or riding jet skis or personal watercraft you must wear a life jacket.

Personal flotation device (PFD) In Montana children under 12 years of age must wear a life jacket (PFD) on a boat less than 26 feet in length that is in motion. Always wear a life-jacket when on a boat, personal water craft (such as a Jet Ski,) paddle board or any other water craft; nearly 90% of all boaters who drown are not wearing a life-jacket or not wearing it properly.

Anglers: A life jacket is REQUIRED on board if the Angler sits above the water surface. Vessel is designed to be rowed or paddled or angler might also use kicking fins. Vessel can carry more than one person.

Stay in touch. Before going out on a boat, tell someone onshore of your float plans. Where you're going and how long you'll be gone. Having a radio onboard is a good idea for checking weather reports. If you hear a storm warning, get off the water as quickly as possible.

Life Jacket Types
Type I: Off-Shore Life Jacket best for open, rough, or remote waters where rescue may not be immediate. Designed to turn an unconscious person face-up.

Type II: Near Shore Life Vest good for calm water where fast rescue is likely. A good choice for children when equipped with a strap to buckle between their legs.

Type III: A Flotation Aid generally the most comfortable to wear for water sports. Available in many colors and styles including vests and float coats. Will not turn an unconscious person face-up.

Type IV: A Throwable Device includes boat cushions, ring buoys, and horseshoe buoys. Designed to be thrown to a person in the water and grasped to the chest, not worn.

Type V: A Special Use Device is intended for specific activities. May be used instead of another PFD only if used according to conditions printed on the label. A Type V life jacket may be used in place of any life jacket if specifically approved by the U.S. Coast Guard for the activity in which the wearer is engaged. The Type V life jacket must be worn at all times to be acceptable.

This week's community health column is brought to you by Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital and Ravalli County Public Health. For questions and or comments, please contact Sheryl Schumacher, Ravalli County Public Health at 406-375- 6675. Working together to build a healthier community!


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