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Safety at the Water's Edge: Local Initiatives Aim to Save Lives

Jun 13, 2024 10:10AM ● By Amanda Danaher

As temperatures rise, families across our area are eager to cool off at the water’s edge. While beaches, rivers, and pools offer summertime fun, parents should keep water safety at the forefront as even idyllic scenes of family fun can quickly turn tragic.

According to Briana Bill, environmental health coordinator at the office of Environmental Health Services with the Virginia Department of Health, drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death among children in our state. From 2016 to 2020, 48% of drowning victims were age 19 and younger, with 13.6% of drownings occurring in pools. These striking statistics are a glaring reminder for families, especially as they head to a popular local spot, the Rappahannock River.

Despite its beauty, the river can be unpredictable with hidden risks. Since the 1980s, there have been more than 100 drownings, with around 50 rescues annually.

 "A lot of people think of [the river] kind of like an ocean beach, where it has a consistent depth,” says Captain Jon Hensen, team leader of the water rescue team for the Stafford County Fire and Rescue Department. “Unfortunately, the river is not like that. You could be standing out on a rock at waist height and then take another step and you’re in water over your head.”

Many locals have seen the need for more safety precautions on the river and have led the charge. April Peterson, co-owner of River Rock Outfitter in Fredericksburg, launched the Respect the Rapp campaign in response to a 2020 drowning on the river. This initiative, supported by local businesses and safety agencies, aims to enhance river safety through education and practical measures. One key aspect of the campaign is promoting the use of life jackets.

Peterson says that many do not wear a life jacket while on the river due to discomfort, heat, and concern for tan lines, as well as perceived cost.

“Sometimes, individuals simply aren't fully aware of the risks posed by not wearing a life [jacket] and how easily those risks could be mitigated by its use,” says Peterson.

To further support this initiative, Stafford County Parks, Recreation, and Utilities offers free life jacket rentals at Falmouth Beach on the Rappahannock River for both adults and children.

"We have not had any drownings of someone that was in a life jacket; it just has not happened,” confirms Hensen. “The single most important thing you can do is be prepared. And the biggest piece of preparation that you can have is that life jacket."  

Hensen and his team of 70 certified swift water safety technicians have also done their part to improve river safety by stationing lifeguards at Falmouth Beach from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

 "Since we've started placing lifeguards at the beach, our visibility and the interaction that we have with the community, along with our immediate presence if there are issues, has greatly improved safety," Hensen says.

Peterson reports that since these measures were introduced in 2021, there have been no drownings near Falmouth Beach.

Families looking to learn crucial water safety and swimming skills can look to programs like YMCA’s Safety Around Water.

“The purpose of our program is essentially just to provide those essential water safety and swimming skills to children and their families…to prevent drowning incidents, promote water confidence, and competence,” says Ryan Wolff, aquatics director at the Massad Family YMCA.

Wolff adds the YMCA provides resources for parents who hope to instill water safety habits in their children early on.

"For the little ones, we have these little games that parents can do with their child at bath time, like practicing blowing bubbles in the bathtub,” says Wolff. “We have little cue cards that we give out so parents can ask kids questions to get them thinking about what could be dangerous around water or how they can have fun in a safe manner while around the pool or the beach."

As families look forward to enjoying time in and around water this summer, Wolff offers a sobering reminder.

"Drownings can happen very quickly and oftentimes they are a very quiet event,” says Wolff. “The best thing that parents can really do is just be vigilant at all times with their child if they're in or around the water.”

Despite potential dangers, Hensen shares it is still okay to have a bit of fun.

“When we talk about water safety, sometimes we as the rescue professionals can sound kind of doom and gloom, but I love recreating on the water,” says Hensen. “It is one of the coolest things that we could do in our region. Just do it in a safe manner.”

 

 

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