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Utah rivers deceptively dangerous this spring, emergency responders warn

Utah's rivers are at substantially lower levels due to light snowfall last winter, but emergency responders warn peop...

Posted: May 11, 2018 1:26 PM
Updated: May 11, 2018 1:26 PM

Utah's rivers are at substantially lower levels due to light snowfall last winter, but emergency responders warn people to not have a false sense of security this spring.

"It doesn't take much water," said Unified Fire Authority Capt. Jay Torgerson. "It's not just the drowning, but even more so is the cold water and the trauma. You're going to be hitting rocks and branches."

The United Fire Authority carried out its yearly swift-water rescue training Thursday in the Provo River at Canyon Glen Park, performing drills exposing them to hazards they might encounter during a river rescue.

Deceivingly dangerous

Torgerson cautioned that although water levels are low, dangers are still highly present even if they aren't apparent. This imperceptible danger was made evident during the team's drills in the river.

While practicing crossing from one bank to the other in groups of three or four, with one man leading with a branch and the others supporting from behind, the rescuers found the going slow and strenuous. Though the water was considerably shallow, a couple times team members slipped, falling as they were swept away by the force of the river and floating on their backs with the help of their life jackets until they reached a safe spot to climb out.

"You can be an Olympic swimmer, and the cold water is still going to render you helpless," Torgerson said. "It's snowmelt. It's extremely cold water, so it doesn't take long at all to become disabled."

Rise in incidents

"Callouts for rescues have increased over the last couple years," said Jason Jones, a member of the Unified rescue team training on Thursday.

Jones said they have seen an 8 percent to 10 percent increase in calls each year for the last several years. They predict this is mostly due to the continual increase in Utah's population.

Last year, six people drowned in Utah's rivers, Torgerson said.

David Bradley, another rescue team member, said the peak time for river danger in Utah is between the beginning of April to the beginning of June, due both to the spring runoff from the mountains and the chillier temperature of the water.

When someone falls in

Torgerson mentioned the tragic incident near Bridal Veil Falls last May, when three people died in the Provo River after a young girl fell in and her mom and a bystander attempted to save her.

Torgerson admitted there's no clear answer for scenarios when a child falls in the water.

"If one of my kids went in the water, I would probably go in after them," he said. "But knowing how these conditions are, going in after somebody is often unsurvivable."

Torgerson's advice for when someone falls in: alert emergency responders immediately, look for ways to help from outside the water, keep an eye on them by moving downstream and reach out with long objects.

"There are circumstances where maybe going in the water would be safe, but that's a decision that everyone would have to make on their own," he said.

Safety precautions

"Respect the water," Bradley said. "It looks all nice and calm, but it can take you down. It took some of us down today."

Dan Anderson, another rescue team member, said an important safety precaution visitors to Utah's rivers should keep in mind is being aware of children.

"Kids are fascinated by water," Anderson said. "If I were to bring my family here with little kids, I would tie them to myself. It only takes two seconds when you turn your back."

Torgerson said people should pay lifeguard-like attention to children around rivers.

"We live in an environment today where there are a lot of distractions," he said, mentioning cellphones.

Another thing to keep in mind, as rescue team member Steve Halligan advised, is your pet. He said they have had people get injured and even killed after attempting to save their dog in a river.

"If your dog goes in, the dog is a much better swimmer than any human," Halligan said. "Don't go in after it."

Torgerson said they don't want to discourage people from enjoying the recreation Utah offers, because there are ways to have fun around rivers safely.

"If you want to improve and learn, there's great guide services in the state of Utah that can help," he said.

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