Water safety prevents water rescue

By Teresa Herriman, The Courier-Herald

This is the second part of a series of water safety articles intended to help residents have a fun and safe summer on the area's many lakes and rivers.

Water rescue and dive teams risk their lives every time there's an underwater rescue on Lake Tapps.

The lake bottom is littered with stumps and, in some places, entire forests. Man-made hazards also lurk below the surface. A railroad trestle, brick kiln and several farms were flooded to create the 4.5 square mile body of water, leaving a maze of debris and barbed wire fence posts that can entangle a diver.

Despite the risk, East Pierce Fire and Rescue divers practice monthly.

Underwater hazards aren't the only challenge. Sediment from the glacial-fed water in the lake reduces visibility below 30 feet of water to zero.

"Diving in this lake is like swimming in chocolate milk," Assistant Chief Dave Wakefield explained.

Searchers walk with arms extended, virtually blind.

"Imagine closing your eyes and walking through a forest," said Lt. Kevin Roorda, a member of the East Pierce dive team.

There are two types of water rescues - surface, as in the case of an injured jet skier, and underwater.

East Pierce uses a 27-foot flat deck pontoon boat for both types of rescues on Lake Tapps. The boat is large enough to hold rescuers, medics and the injured, allowing emergency teams to begin treatment on board.

Most of the underwater rescues, however, are shore-based.

Divers use information from witnesses to make sweeps in the area where the victim was last seen. By providing vital information, witnesses can assist divers in narrowing the search area.

"Being able to mark that location helps reduce the size of the haystack," Wakefield said.

He recommends picking a fixed object on the horizon to line-up with the last seen location of the victim.

"Time is absolutely critical. We can't stress last seen location enough."

Roorda remembers one situation where the search area equaled four football fields.

Matt Jewitt led a recent water rescue training drill on the shores of Lake Tapps. He told the assembled team of firefighters that, although infrequent, water rescues are some of the hardest scenes they will ever see.

"You see the pain and the anger," he said.

To frantic family and friends, it may seem the divers are taking too much time interviewing witnesses and suiting up. However, there is a process that needs to happen prior to going into such a hostile environment.

The best situation for everyone is to avoid a rescue in the first place.

"If everyone had life jackets on, we wouldn't have to search for them," Wakefield said.

Roorda agrees.

"The number of people wearing life jackets we've had to rescue - zero," he said.

Next week: The dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning on the lake

Teresa Herriman can be reached at

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