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What to do if you get caught in a waterway's strong current

Rope throw bags can be used for stranded paddle boarders, too. (KTVL/Megan Willgoos)
Rope throw bags can be used for stranded paddle boarders, too. (KTVL/Megan Willgoos)
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The heat is upon us and with that, the desire to cool off in one of the valley's many beautiful waterways is to be expected. However, as you head to the river's edge with your family this summer there are some important tips to keep in mind so that you know what to do if things go south.

Rural Metro Firefighters in Josephine County met at Maston Park in Grants Pass today for their annual water safety training in the Rogue River. During the even, Division Chief Austin Prince, used the opportunity to provide the public with water safety tips.

"Sometimes, the Rogue, based on it's current and based on how cold it is, catches people off guard," Chief Prince said.

Throughout the summer, people swim and take their boats out on the river and may not know what to do if they get caught in a strong current. Chief Prince said so far this year, they have had half a dozen rescues.

"When the water is pushing somebody, at a 90-degree angle, it pushes them away and they want to fight to get to the shore," Chief Prince said. However, he said staying calm and positioning your body so that the current can carry you to shore is the best choice in that scenario.

"Getting people to actually recognize that you have to kind of go with the flow for a little while, before you can actually find your way to the bank, and calming yourself down and being prepared for that distance you have to travel, is actually something that would save peoples lives," Chief Prince said.

He noted that the best position to assume is on your back with your feet facing downstream and your head upstream that way your feet will not get caught on debris or branches at the bottom of the river. Try to bend slightly at the waist so that your head and feet are both out of the water and you can see where you are going.

For the training today, Swiftwater Rescue Technician J. Brett Turnbull brought throw bags with rope in them. These are used to throw to people who are still conscious and above the water. Although water accidents happen on the Rogue River a lot more than some would think, Chief Prince said, this technique is not used often because most dispatches lead to a rescue or recovery mission where the person is drowning or missing.

"Just keep prepared and ready because, you know, we have to practice our rope throwing techniques in the event that we have an opportunity to do so," Chief Prince said.

The National Guard reported in 2017 that wearing a life vest could have saved the lives of over 80 percent of boating fatality victims. Prince and Turnbull highly recommend wearing one.

"And always wear your life jacket, you can make a lot of mistakes if you wear a life jacket. Where if you don't wear a life jacket, it just takes one mistake. And the river is a very serious environment, so please be responsible and think about safety," Turnbull said.

Turnbull has been doing water training sessions since 2010 full-time and conducts seven to 10 every year not only in Josephine County but also in India and Thailand. He got interested in technical rope rescue while in the military.

"I have a high season here in America, which is usually the summer. I train a lot of first responders, fire departments and the bulk of it is Swift Water Rescue and then technical rope rescue," Turnbull said.

Turnbull is also a resident of Josephine County and is happy to be giving back to his community.

"It's really kind of an excuse to stay on the river sometimes, but it's good to get to help out the community and train," Turnbull said. "Because if my family gets into an accident, these are the people that are going to respond."

The water safety trainer said that the most important thing he must teach first responders is about the character of the body of water they are working in.

"As first responders, until they really understand the environment, they can't really go into it and help other people out if they're just gonna get themselves in trouble," Turnbull said.

Chief Prince hopes people will be safe on the Rogue River this summer so that water rescues won't be needed.

He wanted that even if "you're a good life jacket wearer and you think you're a good swimmer, bad things happen to good people."

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