Community coalition receives water safety award

SwimSafe, a coalition of public and private organizations, has been recognized for its community approach to drowning prevention. The group received the Tom Warren Award for Innovation this month from the Washington State Drowning Prevention Network. The annual award recognizes a program, organization or individual that has taken an innovative approach to water safety and drowning prevention.

SwimSafe members include the Bonney Lake Police Department, East Pierce Fire and Rescue, the Sumner and Dieringer School Districts, Cascade Water Alliance, Pierce County Parks and Sumner-Bonney Lake Aquatics.

The group was formed in 2012 following a particularly disastrous year on Lake Tapps. Three people drowned over the course of the summer.

There is at least one drowning on the lake during any typical year, according to East Pierce Fire and Rescue.

Lake Tapps is a reservoir fed by glacial runoff from the White River. In addition to the homes that border the 45-mile shoreline, there are two public parks: Allan York Park in Bonney Lake and Lake Tapps North Park, operated by Pierce County Parks.

According to information provided by East Pierce Fire and Rescue,  the lake attracts boaters and water enthusiasts who may not be aware of the danger cold water can inflict. Cold water incapacitation has been blamed for multiple drownings on the lake.

Bonney Lake Mayor Neil Johnson gathered stakeholders for an initial educational discussion on drowning prevention in the fall of 2012. The SwimSafe coalition was born from that meeting.

Coalition members coordinated numerous community education events to promote water safety during the next year. Among the events, the Bonney Lake Police Department conducted more than 30 water safety assemblies at the Sumner and Dieringer School Districts, targeting approximately 7,000 elementary school students. At the assemblies, East Pierce firefighters sold and fitted nearly 90 life jackets. The fire department offered loaner life jackets throughout the year at kiosks located in both parks on the lake. The police and fire departments also hosted two annual drowning prevention events, April Pool’s Day and the Summer SplashTacular, to educate children and their families.

Cascade Water Alliance facilitated a community meeting and funded a two-page water safety message that was published in the Courier-Herald.

Sumner-Bonney Lake Aquatics offered a new Teen Basic Swimming and Water Safety Class as part of its schedule at the Sumner High School swimming pool.

It appears the efforts are paying off. In 2013, no one drowned in Lake Tapps. However, the coalition plans to continue its work.

The coalition is expanding its education efforts and several new projects are underway. One such plan is a proposed Lake Tapps addressing project to direct first responders more quickly to the scene of a water-related emergency by placing signs along the shoreline. The addresses would help 911 callers more accurately identify their location when reporting an incident.

Local students have also been encouraged to get involved. A memorial was erected and dedicated to past drowning victims. Several students at North Tapps Middle School are developing a program to alert swimmers to the lake temperature using buoys around the lake. The buoys will transmit real-time lake water temperature to an on-shore display. That project is currently seeking funding.

Bonney Lake Sgt. Ryan Boyle said the system may also be able to utilize social media as a way to alert individuals of water temperature.

“We are very honored to be part of the coalition and to receive this award. It was unexpected,” he said. “We’re trying to carry the momentum and build on the progress we’ve made. The goal is for another year with no drownings on Lake Tapps.”