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Increase in water rescues has officials on high alert this weekend

TDFPD's Marine 24 vessel that responds to emergencies.
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With a warm, sunny Fourth of July weekend around the corner, visitors and locals will be hitting the lake and beaches. Water rescues have already been higher than normal this year at Lake Tahoe, and officials say they are ready to handle a possible uptick in rescues while reminding people to be safe.

Chief Colt Fairchild, United States Coast Guard Station Lake Tahoe in Tahoe City says that they have seen an increase of water rescues since the restrictions were lifted, the boat dock has opened and since the weather has warmed.

The beginning of summertime usually comes with an increase in rescues. However, this year Fairchild says that they are seeing more than usual.

On June 27 alone, the Coast Guard along with other government state and county partners responded to 13 different search and rescue cases on Lake Tahoe. Eleven of the cases occurred within a two-hour period. A total of 17 lives were saved or assisted that day.

Fairchild said several calls have involved human-powered watercraft such as paddle boards, kayaks. He explained that while personal floatation devices are required to be on board, they aren’t required to be worn on paddleboards which can be very dangerous if the watercraft flips over and the operator falls in.

Hypothermia and cold shock response are dangers when it comes to Lake Tahoe and are always on first responders’ radars.

“Even when the temperature out of the water is supposed to be 80 degrees, the water temperature is still below 60 degrees,” Fairchild said.

Jumping in the water can initiate a cold shock response, within 10 minutes extremities can fail and without a PFD, it can be life threatening.

Fairchild strongly encourages people to wear a PFD on the water at all times.

“There was a Jet Ski case two or three weeks ago where the people were hypothermic, but not unconscious and we were able to have a successful rescue. It (PFD) keeps your head out of the water.”

This Fourth of July weekend, Fairchild expects to see an increased amount of boaters on the lake. USCG Station Lake Tahoe and other government partners have implemented their awareness campaign Operation Dry Water for the holiday weekend.

Since alcohol is one of the leading factors of fatal boating accidents, USCG will be educating boaters and enforcing boater safety by making sure boat operators are under the federal .08 legal blood alcohol content limit.

“Designate a sober boat driver. Enjoy the lake, but be boat responsible and take care of your crew,” Fairchild said.

When the Coast Guard gets emergency calls and needs help, they radio the closest responders. Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District rescue boats are ready to go 24/7 at the Zephyr Cove Station.

Eric Guevin, TDFPD fire marshal, said they have been busy with calls.

“Given the situation with COVID, the numbers are higher,” he said.

Guevin said that it isn’t isn’t too far from the norm but there is an increase of people on the beaches.

“People can’t go to the movies so they are going outside,” he said.

Guevin also said a majority of the water rescue calls have been in regards to human-powered watercraft such as paddle boards, rafts, kayaks.

“People are getting out too far from shore and are pushed by the wind or water,” he said. “Suddenly people realize they are outside their comfort zone.”

While he also says that there are people taking out old boats that haven’t been taken out in awhile that have issues. TDFPD intervenes when there could be a threat to life and safety. Guevin recommends that you know your watercraft.

“Be prepared by wearing your life jacket and wear it properly,” he said. “Don’t just have it with you, utilize it.”

Make sure the PFD fits well and is worn correctly.

TDFPD has Marine 24, a 19-foot vessel that has EMS, rescue and even firefighting capabilities. When people fell in the rocks near Secret Beach, there was a multi-agency response and responders got the individuals on Marine 24 to start treatment right away. They used the vessel to get people to a pier and into an ambulance much quicker than trying to get the people back up the rocks and hill to the road.

“Cold water shock is a real concern that people need to be aware of,” Guevin said, and added that most drownings in Lake Tahoe are related to that. He explained while hypothermia happens slower, cold water shock is an instant gasp reflex response.

“We had a drowning last year by Edgewood,” he said.

Cold water shock can happen to anyone regardless of age, health or fitness level.

Guevin also recommends utilizing your options before going out to rescue someone.

“The last thing we want is two victims, when there was one,” he said.

He recommends these water rescue methods:

First try to reach the victim with your arm or leg. If a pole or sturdy stick is available, try to use that to reach out to the victim and pull them to safety.

Throw something to the victim such as a rope.

Row a boat to the victim.

Lastly, go (with support) to swim out to the victim to rescue them.

Guevin recommends parents should designate one person to watch the kids, a “designated water watcher.”

He said that studies show that when we think everyone is watching the children the reality is no one is watching or paying attention and this can result in tragic outcomes.


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