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July 14, 2008
Deadly Holiday Weekend Prompts Water Safety Warnings
AUSTIN, Texas — During the July 4 holiday weekend, at least 13 Texans drowned in public waters. Seven of those were in North Texas, and together they bring the total number of water-related fatalities in Texas to 66 for this year. More than half of those deaths did not involve boats.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Law Enforcement Division is charged with investigating all boating fatalities in the state, but because of game wardens’ special training and equipment, they are also often called by local law enforcement agencies to assist in search and rescue and recovery operations in shoreline drownings. All water-related fatalities are reported to TPWD for statistical purposes, though reporting sometimes lags several weeks.
"Texas is a big state with a lot of water — more water than any other state in the Lower 48," said Maj. Alfonso Campos, chief of marine safety enforcement for TPWD. "So it’s not surprising that we’ll see some accidents out there. What is tragic, though, is that almost all of these deaths could have been prevented."
Contrary to what’s portrayed in movies, drowning victims usually don’t scream and splash when in distress — they just go underwater.
"When we encourage people to keep an eye on their party near the water, we’re encompassing several messages, including never swim alone, keep a close watch on friends and family in the water, and keep a constant eye on children," said Brandi Bradford, TPWD boater education coordinator.
Bradford also recommends that groups or families assign one person to keep a constant watch on both adults and children in and near the water.
"It’s especially important to be aware of hazards when you’re on an open water body like a lake, river or bay," said Bradford. "Someone who is a weak swimmer may be in the water at waist level and their next step could be a 10-foot drop-off. We’ve had quite a few drownings in which someone swam after an inflatable raft or toy that was being blown across the water by the wind. When fatigue set in or a cramp hit, they were already too far away from shore and from help."
Practical advice from water rescue experts includes the steps, "reach, throw, then row."
The first step is to use a rope, tree branch or other object to try to reach the swimmer from shore. The next step is to throw something buoyant such as a life jacket, inner tube, floating raft or a plastic foam ice chest. If the first two steps fail, put on a life jacket and row out to the swimmer with a boat or a raft. Never reach for a drowning person with your own body, as the person in trouble can quickly drag you under in a panic
"Unfortunately, we see many multiple drowning cases where folks go into the water to rescue a friend or a loved one who is drowning and they end up becoming a drowning victim as well," said Campos.
"It’s essential that you first try to help the swimmer using the reach, throw, and row method. If those steps don’t work and you must go into the water because there is no other option, it’s essential that you wear a life jacket, take a flotation device for the swimmer, and call for help or alert someone before you head into the water," he said.
Capt. Garry Collins, a TPWD game warden district supervisor in Garland, suggested putting young children and non-swimmers in life jackets, even when they are not aboard a boat.
"Texas law requires children 12 and under to wear life jackets when a boat is underway," Collins said. "But as we’ve seen this last weekend, the lake shore also can be a very dangerous place. At least one little girl would still be with us this week if she had been wearing a life jacket."
In addition to law enforcement efforts, TPWD is focusing this year on reaching the public with boating and water safety messages through a fun, interactive outreach campaign called "Nobody’s Waterproof — Play it Safe." The TPWD Nobody’s Waterproof outreach team will be conducting on-the-water and shoreline water safety events at various lakes and other locations on high-profile weekends. See the schedule online.
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