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Canals may look fun but they are very dangerous

POSTED May 2, 2012 9:59 a.m.
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Each year around this time I write about water safety. It may seem like just another public safety tip, but for me, it is much more than that. There have been several occasions while I was off duty and recreating at a lake, when an adult or child has drowned. In one instance more than a decade ago, I was at a reservoir in Wyoming when I saw a lot of commotion a few hundred yards away. It quickly became apparent that someone had disappeared under the water, and since I am an experienced diver and have advanced first aid training, I and some friends acted immediately to assist. When I got to the location where the person was last seen, I found out from the parents that it was their young boy who had drowned.

The child had been playing in shallow water without a life jacket. The parents did not pay attention for "just a few short moments," only to realize that their child had disappeared. After a few breath-hold dives, we found him on the reservoir floor, under about six feet of water. We brought the child to the beach and despite all efforts to revive him with CPR, he was pronounced dead. The parents were hysterical with grief and indescribable emotional pain, angry at each other for letting their attention drift from the boy while he was playing, and the numerous onlookers were all deeply saddened and upset by what had happened.

For me, it was an experience of such profound sadness that I cannot erase the memories from my mind. The boy's lifeless body left a vivid picture in my mind, and I often think about what he missed out on, had he lived. I am quite sure that his parents miss him every day, and that they still blame themselves for his death. Indeed, the boy should have been wearing a life jacket - it is a cardinal rule that all kids when playing in or near water should be wearing vests, and that they should be continually monitored by a responsible adult.

One of the biggest water-related dangers lies with the canals that run through most of the communities in this area. When it gets really hot, the local irrigation canals are tempting to many people, since they are close and convenient. Too many people, kids in particular, drown in canals each year. Canal walls are steep, slick, and very difficult to climb out of. The water moves very swiftly such that it can easily pin even the best of swimmers under water, against the wall or bottom of the canal. Kids should not be allowed to play anywhere near canals, no matter how good their swimming skills are. Rapidly-flowing water is extremely powerful, often underestimated, and can overtake children and adults alike.

People also drown by falling into the water while walking or riding bicycles too close to the edge of canals, so it is important to keep a safe distance from it. The water is usually cold, especially in the early part of the season. The cold water is a shock to our bodies, and can sometimes lead to panic and disorientation. Panic is usually one of the main reasons people are unable to think their way out of a dangerous or life-threatening situation.

If a pet falls into the canal, do not jump in after it. It is important to call 911 for assistance. A person or pet that has fallen in and appears to be drowning makes for a difficult, potentially dangerous decision. No matter what, call 911 without delay. A rescue attempt could easily end up claiming more lives than just the original victim.

Entering into the water of a canal is considered trespassing and will lead to the violator being issued a citation or booked into jail. Some canal systems allow for walking or bicycling on designated paths, but this is not to suggest that the water is therefore also legally accessible.

Canal deaths are completely preventable. Do not swim or allow others to swim in canals - ever! Never tube, kayak or canoe in canals - these activities are dangerous and illegal. Now is also a good time to make sure your kids take swimming lessons to learn more about water safety and increase their chances of surviving dangerous water situations. The city of Ceres Recreation Department will be offering swim lessons at Ceres High School this summer, please visit for more information and to sign your children up. I wish you all a safe summer.
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