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Firefighters urge safe swimming after drownings spike

Firefigher Engineer Rob Nastase drives a Charlotte Fire Department dive boat on Lake Wylie near CFD Station 38 during a press conference about water safety on Thursday June 25, 2015. The Humminbird sonar (screen at upper right) helped dive teams locate victims of the recent Whitewater Center and Highway 49 bridge drownings. Screen at bottom is a Garmin GPS system. In just the past two weeks, members of the Charlotte Fire Department have responded to seven emergency calls on local lakes and rivers. Sadly, those seven calls resulted in five drownings.
Firefigher Engineer Rob Nastase drives a Charlotte Fire Department dive boat on Lake Wylie near CFD Station 38 during a press conference about water safety on Thursday June 25, 2015. The Humminbird sonar (screen at upper right) helped dive teams locate victims of the recent Whitewater Center and Highway 49 bridge drownings. Screen at bottom is a Garmin GPS system. In just the past two weeks, members of the Charlotte Fire Department have responded to seven emergency calls on local lakes and rivers. Sadly, those seven calls resulted in five drownings. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte Fire Department is urging residents to swim more safely after firefighters responded to seven emergency water rescues at lakes and rivers in the past two weeks. Five people drowned in those incidents.

Officials say the only thing all the drowning victims had in common was that they were not wearing flotation devices.

Battalion Chief Tim Rogers said the spike was severe.

“I’ve never seen it like this in 33 years,” he said.

Capt. Rodney Sawyer of Station 38 said that while water rescues are unpredictable, it’s rare to have so many in such a short period of time. The previous summer, the station only responded to a couple over the entire season, he said.

Part of what’s driving the spike has been the area’s record heat, as residents look to cool off in the water, said Scott Hunter, a fire chief with the West Mecklenburg Volunteer Fire Department and a captain for the Charlotte Fire Department.

Hunter warned parents to watch their children and for everyone to avoid swimming while intoxicated.

“Really, commonsense plays a big part,” he said.

Part of what’s driving the spike has been the area’s near-record heat, as residents look to cool off in the water.

Here are five ways to enjoy water more safely:

1. Take swimming lessons.

“Our big message today is, ‘Learn to swim, learn to live,’” said Battalion Chief Tim Rogers. Rogers said two kids under the age of 14 die from drowning every day across the country.

“We have a national drowning problem,” he said. “You’re not going to figure it out when you get in the water.”

2. Don’t show off for the camera.

“We sort of live in a YouTube, selfie society,” Rogers said. “We’re finding a lot of young, athletic males – and that’s 80 percent of our drownings, nationally – doing something they shouldn’t be doing.”

3. Wear a flotation device.

None of the drowning victims had a life jacket on. “I’ve spent 40 years in river rescue work – I always wear one,” Rogers said.

4. Watch out for shallow water.

Hunter said in one rescue, a swimmer had jumped off a bridge into an area about 10 feet deep. However, just a few steps to the side, it would have been only three feet deep. Rogers warned that it’s hard to tell what’s beneath the surface.

5. Don’t rely on rescuers.

On average, it takes six minutes after a swimmer goes under before it’s too late for responders to save them, Hunter said. “You’re done. That’s a very narrow window for us to do anything.” Hunter and Rogers recommended using a buddy system and advised parents to keep a close eye on children.

Taylor: 704-358-5353; Twitter: @LangstonITaylor

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