Firefighters at the Montesano Fire Department hope a new life jacket loaner program at Lake Sylvia State Park will stem off potential drownings and teach youth and parents alike about the need to be cautious when they’re around water.
Although there haven’t been recent deaths at Lake Sylvia, there have been drownings in the area, and firefighters are hoping to prevent a tragedy from happening at the popular recreational park, which draws thousands every summer, especially to the lake on warm days. Back in June, 18-year-old Ernest Estrella died up at Wynooche Falls. And, between 2002 and 2011, there have been 12 drowning fatalities in the county, numbers provided by the Montesano Fire Department show, including the death of a 17-year-old Aberdeen High School student, who drowned near the popular “Twin Bridges” swimming hole along Devonshire Road back in the summer of 2005.
“Drowning is one of the leading causes of unintentional death among children and youth,” a grant application written by Montesano Fire Medical Services Officer Rick Watkinson states. “In Washington state, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death among children ages one to 17. In our state, drowning deaths usually occur in open water, such as lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean.”
Watkinson notes that Lake Sylvia State Park has 15,000 feet of shoreline, sitting unprotected for swimmers or boating enthusiasts wanting to enjoy the water.
“In the past, Lake Sylvia had seasonal lifeguard protection,” Watkinson said. “Because of budget cuts, the only protection that is currently offered is a long life ring on the beach shore.”
Watkinson applied for and received a $920 grant from the West Region EMS board to implement a life jacket loaner program at Lake Sylvia. Last week, volunteers were putting the final touches on a new kiosk with life jacket safety information and about a dozen life jackets all marked in big black marker “LOANER.”
Watkinson, Chief Corey Rux and volunteer firefighters Greg Ballew and Dan Wisdom stepped up to build the kiosk.
Watkinson gave most of the construction credit to Ballew, who, despite a busy schedule working long hours at Paneltech, used what days off he had off to come up to the park to design the structure and build.
“You know, I never figured math would be that essential to know, but after getting into construction on my own house and with various projects and with this, knowing angles, knowing proportions, all of that matters,” Ballew said. “This has been a challenge, but I’m really hopeful that we can save lives here.”
Watkinson said Wisdom, known around the station as “Red Eye,” also deserves credit for painting the structure.
Chief Rux says that the fire department shouldn’t be just about tackling an emergency after the fact, but trying to prevent emergencies. He commended Watkinson for seeing a need and finding the funds to get it done.
“This is a good-news story all around,” Rux said. “This shows that we have employees and volunteers who will step up and really help this city and its residents.”
Watkinson notes that the whole project came in under the $920 budget and he hopes the state agency will notice that when the city wants to apply for other grants.
Watkinson credited the Dennis Company for selling the life jackets at a discounted rate and working with the city on the project.
The kiosk is located at the swimming area with life jackets available in all sizes — from infant to youth-size and adult sizes.
“There are life jackets that will fit me and people bigger than me,” Watkinson said.
Watkinson said he and his wife occasionally canoe at Lake Sylvia and he has seen children without life jackets and parents let their kids get too close to the water than they probably should.
“The ranger says there have been a lot of people asking about life jackets, but they never had any to loan out for the swimming area,” he added. “My hope is that, while it’s placed at the swimming area, boaters who need them will know it’s there and borrow them, too.”
The fire department will monitor the life jackets and their use and report their findings over the next year or so back to the granting agency.
Watkinson noted that Black Lake near Olympia installed a similar program with a dozen life jackets. By the end of the season, two of the original life jackets were missing, but more appeared from community donations and people just placing them by the Blake Lake kiosk. Watkinson said he’s not encouraging donations because of liability issues, but he’s not so worried about theft.
“My whole goal is to go up there and hope to see them on children,” he said.