Swift water is safety focus as Colorado snowpack melts

Rescuers offer words of caution to Coloradans in search of recreation

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Rachel Kohler loves rivers.

“Playing in rivers can be a ton of fun,” she said, “as long as you’re doing it with full knowledge of the risks — and you have a safety plan in place.”

For her profession, Kohler is an engineer with West Metro Fire Rescue. But for recreation, she is a river fishing guide. Though experienced in river activities and knowledgeable about safety precautions, Kohler joined many other professional firefighters across the state this year in earning a swift water rescue certification.

“Each year, we have more and more people recreating in our rivers and lakes,” said Chris Dinges, a fire engineer with the Westminster Fire Department. “It’s imperative to keep our skills sharp so that we’re capable of responding when needed.”

Rescue crews are especially concerned with water safety this year because heavier-than-average snowfall last winter means more runoff is expected.

“There’s a natural allure to moving water,” said Jeff Steinhoff, operations captain and wildland coordinator for the Golden Fire Department. He is a hobbyist kayaker and has about 17 years’ experience with the department’s swift water rescue team. “It can look pretty inviting (and) it’s refreshing. But it’s dangerous. Swift water rescue is the most dangerous thing I do as a firefighter.”

Although usually associated with rivers, swift water can be any form of moving water. This includes lakes, reservoirs and flooded areas.

“Even slow-moving water can cause a fatality,” said Robert Baker, a firefighter with South Metro Fire Rescue who is an instructor for the department’s Dive Team, which includes swift water rescue.

Use a personal flotation device, also known as a life jacket or vest, anytime you’re going to be near the water, Baker said. Especially children, he added.

“They’re not going to like it at first,” Baker said, “but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

People often don’t realize how cold Colorado’s natural bodies of water are, Steinhoff said. When a person is cold, movements can be slowed and immediate reactions delayed, making self-rescue even more difficult, he added.

“Shivering is the first sign of hypothermia,” Steinhoff said. “Make sure to get out of the water every once in a while, to let your body warm up. Wrap up in a dry towel or put dry clothes on. The key is to dry off.”

Thermo-protection, also known as a wet suit, is recommended for anyone expecting to participate in water activities for a prolonged period of time, Steinhoff added.

Another hazard not often associated with swift water are floods, said Dave Dame, a firefighter with West Metro Fire Rescue and a swift water rescue instructor.

“A flash flood can cause a river to form anywhere, at any time,” Dame said.

Swift water rescue crews are also trained to handle flood situations, he said.

“Water is powerful and relentless, and not to mention freezing cold. All this was snow a couple of days ago,” Dame said. “I’m all for heading out to the river for a picnic. Just don’t get in the water unless you’re properly trained and have the appropriate equipment.”

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