Douglas sheriff revamps life jacket policy following drowning | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Douglas sheriff revamps life jacket policy following drowning

Christy Chalmers

MINDEN – Douglas County’s boat patrol officers now wear life jackets from the moment they leave dry land until they return under a recently-enacted policy.

Sheriff Ron Pierini said the change followed an internal investigation into the drowning death of deputy Ed Callahan, who died May 24 after the dinghy he was in capsized, pitching him and two others in Lake Tahoe’s frigid waters.

The department’s investigation, and one conducted by the Nevada Division of Wildlife, found no criminal violations in connection with Callahan’s death. But Pierini said his department changed its procedures in response to the drowning.

“Deputy Callahan actually had a life jacket in his possession at the time of the incident,” Pierini said. “He had one in his hand, but not on, and when the rope was thrown to him, he let go of the life jacket and he sank.

“From now on, whoever is on a boat will be wearing a life jacket. That should curtail this from ever happening again.”

Previously, the department-issue life jackets were kept aboard the patrol boat and secured there while the boat was out of service. The officers will now wear the jackets from the time they leave the shore until they return, and the vests will be left on shore when they are not on duty.

Callahan and Rice had finished their shift on May 24, secured their life jackets on the patrol boat and boarded a dinghy piloted by harbor master Chris Burke for a trip back to the shore when it capsized. Rice and Burke were able to climb out of the water and call for help. They tried to throw a life-line to deputy Callahan, but he was unable to grab it.

Authorities said the smaller boat tipped over before the occupants could put their life jackets on.

Fred Messmann, boating law administrator for the Nevada Division of Wildlife, said his agency’s investigation concluded no violations occurred. The boats were carrying enough life jackets for the occupants, as required by state law. But the law does not require boaters to wear the jackets unless they are operating personal watercraft such as Jet Skis, waterskiing or engaging in an activity that requires them to be outside an enclosed boat.

Messmann said his agency’s investigation confirmed high winds and waves likely contributed to the smaller boat’s capsizing. It also concluded hypothermia brought on by the lake’s 47-degree water and the “automatic gasp reflex” probably contributed to Callahan’s drowning. Cold water can paralyze a person, and it causes an “automatic gasp,” which may have caused Callahan to ingest water.

“Regardless of physical condition, if you go into extremely cold water, people really can’t imagine how quick it takes the breath and energy away,” said Messmann.

The NDW report, which includes witness statements, interviews and facts about the incident, did not include recommendations other than that no criminal charges should be sought.

The Douglas patrol boat, which docks at Zephyr Cove, returned to service June 5. Deputy James Hill, who in May was named Reserve Officer of the Year for his previous service to Douglas County, was hired to work on the boat along with Deputy Rice. The boat will stay in service through mid-September.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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