Officials urge caution around water, stress importance of wearing life jackets
Columbus has averaged five drownings a year since 2014. Officials are aiming to have none at all.
“We would certainly like to get that number down to zero,” Columbus Fire Marshal Ricky Shores said at a news conference intended to remind area residents of the risks they face on the Chattahoochee River and other waterways.
“We want to make sure that they’re as prepared as possible, to not only enjoy the river, but to be safe while they’re doing it,” said Shores, whose agency responds to reports of drownings in Columbus.
He ran through the number of drownings for the past five years:
▪ Three in 2014.
▪ Nine in 2015.
▪ Four in 2016.
▪ Four in 2017.
▪ Five in 2018.
Shores’ primary tip for water safety is the same one authorities here always have emphasized, particularly since Columbus’ whitewater course opened in 2013:
Wear a life vest when you’re out on the water.
“It’s absolutely critical that you have that life vest on,” Shores said.
It is also the law on the river downtown: Columbus Council in 2012 passed an ordinance requiring people wear such safety gear while on the whitewater course.
“It shall be unlawful for any person to swim, canoe, kayak, raft, jet-ski, or use any other vessel on the Chattahoochee River between the North Highlands Dam and the southern property line of the Columbus Iron Works Convention and Trade Center without wearing a personal flotation device,” the ordinance states.
The law has exceptions for sanctioned swimming events, which are closely monitored with rescuers available for emergencies. That is the only exception: The law makes no allowance for snorkeling, for children whose parents are watching them splash in the shallows, or for adults wading out to fish.
Elsewhere on the Chattahoochee, the law differs. For example, boaters on the backwater or in the main river channel have to wear life vests in some circumstances, but not others.
Still all vessels have to have enough vests for their occupants, said Cpl. Mitch Oliver of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources: “Any vessel has to have a life jacket for everyone on board, that is an appropriate fit.”
The law says the flotation devices must be functional and be a brand that has been approved for use by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Boaters by law are required to wear life vests if they venture into a “hazardous area” as designated by marked buoys. Some of those areas are on the north ends of Lake Oliver, Lake Harding and Bibb Pond, Oliver said.
Georgia law also requires that children 12 or younger wear personal flotation devices or PFDs while they are aboard a boat that is moving, or underway — unless the boat has a cabin and the children are inside it.
Oliver said kayakers and paddle boarders also should have life vests, when they’re out on the water.
“We’ve got people in the middle of a lake and no life jackets,” he said. “People need to start using better common sense.”
Young and reckless
The nonprofit Safe Kids Columbus hopes to get people to start using better common sense when they’re children.
This past Saturday the organization, as part of the Columbus Kids Coalition, stocked 1,000 PFDs with which to fit children who came downtown to its “Kids Palooza” event at the Frank K. Martin Pedestrian Bridge.
Pam Fair of Safe Kids said 800 life vests were distributed in 2018, so more were stockpiled for this year’s event. Usually the smaller vests go faster, ranging from those designed for infants to vests made for kids weighing 30 to 50 pounds.
Teaching kids about water safety before they get into their teens is a priority, Fair said.
“We’re actually trying to reach that 7- to 11-year-old male, because we’re hoping to teach them something so that when they become a teen or a young 20-something, they know a little more about how this works,” she said.
That way they may resist the temptation toward reckless behavior that some youngsters are susceptible to.
Respect the river
Shores said people on the river here can’t count on their swimming prowess to save them, if they find themselves in distress.
Referring to the whitewater course, he said: “The problem in this area is if you bump your head while you’re underwater, like we’ve had several people do, you don’t swim very well.”
The river also has powerful underwater currents that are not readily perceptible, from the surface, he said, noting the Chattahoochee is not some trickling mountain stream:
“It’s a major river, and it’s got currents that you just can’t overcome, and you need to respect it.”
Without a flotation device to keep your head above water, “you’re looking at severe brain damage without oxygen in four to six minutes,” he said, and that’s usually faster than rescuers can reach the water, after a 911 call.
With so little time to spare, “you’ve got to understand that the odds are not in your favor for surviving a drowning incident,” he said.