Rescue team prepares for summer

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By Teresa Herriman, The Courier-Herald

This is the first part of a series of water safety articles intended to help residents have a fun and safe summer on the area's many lakes and rivers.

Members of the East Pierce Fire and Rescue's Water Rescue and Dive Program spent Saturday honing skills they hope they will not have to use.

The program provide trained divers, medics and other emergency personnel to respond to drownings, accidents and medical calls on Lake Tapps and other local bodies of water.

Established nearly 15 years ago, the program focuses mainly on Lake Tapps, since almost all water rescue incidents occur there.

Divers train year round, but the highest risk is in the summer months when the area lakes are brimming with boaters and swimmers.

Lake Tapps is the fourth most popular recreational lake in the state. From water skiing to fishing, the lake provides a recreation enthusiasts' dream. However, the murky waters and vast forest of stumps and snags below the surface is a nightmare for divers who must search for victims of water-related accidents.

Unfortunately, there is an average of one drowning per year on Lake Tapps. Last year, there were two.

Trying to find a victim in the 4.5 square miles of lake and 45 miles of shoreline requires not only skill, but an established procedure.

When rescuers arrive at the scene of an incident, they must first determine the last seen location of the victim. Gathering information from traumatized witnesses must be done quickly and gently. With a visibility in the glacial fed water of Lake Tapps of next to zero, identifying where the victim was last seen speeds the search process.

All dive rescue team members are certified in Dive Rescue 1, or basic open water rescue. Dive Rescue 2 is an optional course providing additional training. All divers must be re-certified every year.

The team averages eight to 10 members, including volunteers. They respond to water-related emergencies in conjunction with the Pierce County sheriff's dive team and the Auburn fire department's special unit dive team.

Team members practice underwater skills, line-tending and running search patterns. But some of the most important training occurs on land.

In addition to rescue personnel, the Water Rescue program provides educational opportunities to promote public safety. Nearly 2,500 junior high school students attended the "Stay on Top of the Water" program last year. East Pierce Fire and Rescue also offers life jacket loaners to interested citizens.

The estimated cost of the program for 2003 was $22,600, which represented less than one half of one percent of the East Pierce Fire and Rescue annual budget.

Next week: What is involved in a water rescue?

Teresa Herriman can be reached at

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