County life vest requirement ‘is working’ on local rivers

August 9, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

Early this summer, the King County Council moved to require life vests be worn by anyone swimming, floating or boating on major rivers in unincorporated areas of the county.

First-time violators are to receive a warning. A second violation could earn you an $86 fine.

“It’s like, don’t they have something better to worry about?” asked Trisha Catwell, 22, as she and her friends went about packing up their canoes and various other gear after having spent what they said was about four hours on the Raging River.

The group was loading up in the parking area above the river on Redmond-Fall City Road near 338th Place Southeast, a popular spot for reaching the river.

As Catwell’s group talked about which ice chest belonged to who and who had brought the yellow bottle of sunscreen, there was not a life vest or floatation device in sight.

Catwell said she had heard of the new rule, but added others among her group of five or six friends didn’t believe her and weren’t concerned in any case.

“I’m not about to wear a vest,” insisted Mike Coulter, 23, who contended there is simply no need for vests on local rivers. He did allow vests might make sense for young children going out on the waterways.

Growing up near Fall City, Parker Newhouse, 22, said he spent plenty of time on the Raging River. And he doesn’t remember ever actually wearing a life vest. Newhouse talked about formerly carrying a vest in his canoe, but said it mostly sat rotting in the bottom of the small boat.

According to Coulter and Newhouse, the river had not been more rapid or cold than in past years and also did not appear any deeper during the trip taken by his friends last week.

Even if no vests were apparent among this particular group, the county has unofficially declared the program a success.

Eastside Fire & Rescue water safety tips

As the temperatures (in theory) reach summer levels, Eastside Fire & Rescue in Issaquah has released some safety suggestions for those looking to enjoy local rivers.
Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional deaths for children younger than 18, according to information supplied by the fire service. Further, most drownings occur in outdoor settings, such as lakes, river and ponds.
EFR offers the following suggestions when visiting local rivers.

  • When possible, swim where lifeguards are present. Children who are in or near water should be supervised by a sober, attentive adult.
  • Stay within designated swimming areas. Swimming beyond designated areas in lakes and rivers is a factor in the drowning deaths of Washington teenagers and adults. Be cautious of sudden drop-offs. Because rivers are constantly moving, they can carve new channels, bring trees down into the river and create new drop-offs.
  • Many rivers and lakes remain cold all summer, even if they are warm on the surface. It’s hard to swim in cold water, especially when one is tired. Hypothermia can set in quickly.
  • Know your limits; stop before you are too tired.
  • Weather and water conditions can change quickly. Check weather forecasts and be prepared for adverse conditions.
  • Set limits with your children: when they can go in the water; where they can go; who needs to be there; and what they should have with them.

Since the ordinance became effective July 1, the King County Sheriff’s Office has issued more than 100 written warnings, but not a single $86 ticket, according to information released by the county.

“This tells me the program is working,” King County Sheriff Sue Rahr said. “Since we haven’t found any repeat offenders, the education process seems to be sinking in. And that’s our goal: to educate the public about the danger of the rivers and get voluntary compliance.”

Again, according to county information, most of the people warned are in their 20s and live in the Seattle metropolitan area, rather than rural King County.

In effect for this current summer, the life vest rule was the idea of King County Executive Dow Constantine.

“This proposal will save lives,” he said in a press release. “River flows are unusually swift and cold this year due to a heavy mountain snowpack that is melting into King County rivers. Rivers are inherently dangerous places to play, but this year is bringing additional risks.”

County officials also contend that what was described as a turbulent winter flood season had changed river channels and reoriented logs, adding to the dangers in local waters.

The vest or flotation device rule is in effect on the portions of the Snoqualmie, Tolt, Cedar, Green, White, Raging and Skykomish rivers that run outside of cities.

“We support this proposal,” Rahr said when the rule first passed. “The vast majority of river accidents to which our marine unit responds could have been prevented if recreationalists had simply worn a PFD (personal flotation device,) had been sober or had a better understanding of the dangerous nature of rivers.”

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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