Labor Day weekend and water play go together like summer and picnics. Central Valley families often head to nearby lakes and rivers to cool off. Water play offers adults and children alike a fun way to spend the holiday, but without proper precautions these family outings can turn tragic.
Members of the STAR (Specialized Trauma ALS Rescue) Team from American Ambulance have firsthand knowledge of the dangers posed by the Valley’s rivers and lakes – especially after a wet winter. The water rescue experts joined Children's Hospital at the Sportsmen’s Club on the edge of the San Joaquin River on Friday, Sept. 2 to discuss water safety and drowning prevention.
Michael Estrada, STAR Rescue Team supervisor with American Ambulance explained that a majority of the water-related injuries in these recreational areas happen in rivers with beach areas. “They can’t see beneath the dark, murky surface,” he said. “They can be standing in ankle-deep water and suddenly step over a drop-off.”
Some of the more dangerous areas are Winton Park and the lower Kings River. “We often see injuries occur in the same specific areas because of the geography,” said Estrada. He warned of “current vectors,” a type of current that pulls you away from the beach. “When the river bends a certain way it can have that type of current,” he said. “It takes you out to the middle of the river very quickly.”
Estrada warned that while the water may look placid, the increased snowmelt and higher riverbanks have led to greater dangers hiding beneath the surface. “The trees along the river are submerged when the level is this high,” he said. “They become strainers. The water goes through but the branches actually grab you.”
Avocado Lake has a vinelike weed near its shore that can cause water-related injury. “The weed gets tangled around their legs,” said Estrada. “The more they move and struggle, the tighter they make the grip of the vines.”
Keeping children safe saves adult lives too. “The people who try to save them can end up drowning,” said Estrada. “They see their kid suddenly go under and they do what anyone of us would do, even though they don’t know how to swim. They have tunnel vision and go in after the child.”
In addition to noting potential hazards underwater and out of sight, waterside visitors should learn to swim. “Always swim with the current,” said Estrada. “Even advanced swimmers can tire swimming against a strong current. If you swim with the current, you may have an opportunity downstream to make it over to the shore.”
Mary Jo Quintero, pre-hospital liaison nurse and water safety coordinator at Children's Hospital Central California, demonstrated how to choose the proper personal floatation device (PFD). “Make sure life vests are US Coast Guard approved,” she said. The approved life jackets come in different types for different applications. Type III PFDs sufficiently protect users around swimming pools. Type I and II PFDs provide greater protection for lakes and rivers.
Quintero pointed out the difference between US Coast Guard approved life jackets and swim aids like water wings. “Swim aids place children face down in the water to help them learn how to swim,” she said. “Life vests position them face up to protect them from drowning.”
Quintero explained that proper fit carries as much weight as wearing the right PFD. An ill-fitting life jacket does not provide sufficient protection. She recommended a technique to determine the right size for a child. “Put the life vest on the child and lift him about an inch off the ground,” she said. A 5-year-old boy and his mother demonstrated. The mom grabbed the top of her son’s life jacket at the top of the arm holes above his shoulders, and gently raised him from the grass. “If the vest goes over the child’s cheekbones, it’s too big,” said Quintero as the boy’s face dipped beneath the front of the life jacket. “As you can see,” she continued, “this boy needs the next smaller size.”
Life jackets worn by infants and toddlers under 30 pounds include a strap between the legs and a nap at the collar. Small children have weaker neck muscles and need the extra floatation material to keep their heads above water.
With adult supervision and securely fitted PFDs, families can relax and enjoy a fun – and safe – day of water play. For more information about the Kohl’s Water Safety program at Children's Hospital Central California, call Mary Jo Quintero at (559) 353-8661 or visit the Kohl’s Water Safety web page.