June 24, 2008

Experts Urge Life-Jacket Use, Safety on Waters on Long Weekend, Throughout Summer


TORONTO - As Canadians prepare to suit up for a dip in the lake or a leisurely boat ride on the holiday weekend, experts are urging them to make water safety a top priority.

A new report says water-related deaths nationwide have been on the decline in recent years, but at least one province is seeing a rise in drownings among older adults.

The Drowning Report released Tuesday by the Lifesaving Society finds that seniors aged 65 and up have the highest drowning rate of all groups in Ontario.

Seniors accounted for half of bathtub deaths, one-quarter of backyard pool deaths and half of hot tub deaths during the period 2000 to 2004.

Barbara Byers, public education director for the Lifesaving Society, said when they first started collecting data two decades ago, it was the 18-to 34-year-old demographic that accounted for the highest number of drowning deaths.

"Those people are now 20 years older, they're older but they're not necessarily wiser, and it seems like for many people they're reticent to change their behaviour as they get older," she said.

"So the combination of not taking precautions like not wearing a life-jacket and not drinking and boating, plus the fact that as they get older, their resilience, their ability to deal with a problem is compromised."

The new report found there was an average of 50 deaths per year in Ontario among adults who are 50 and older, from 2000 to 2004.

When it comes to risk factors, the leading major contributor to drownings among boomers and seniors continues to be not wearing a life-jacket at 94 per cent, followed by being alone at 64 per cent.

The report said heart disease and heart attacks have emerged as a key factor in raising the risk of aquatic emergencies among older victims, accounting for 28 per cent of deaths.

Being out in cold water situations (26 per cent) and/or after dark (21 per cent) were also cited as factors.

Byers said cold water can be a tremendous shock to the system when an individual falls in unexpectedly, even moreso for a person who's older, which is why wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) is crucial.

"If you have a life-jacket on, what that means when you fall in is that you will be floating above the water and you can compose yourself and you can sort of assess where you are and what you need to do to get to safety."

Bob Lyons, inventor of the Safety Turtle, a special bracelet designed to activate an alarm when a young child who's wearing it gets wet, is now distributing a similar item geared towards adults.

Lyons said the Turtle Visor, first developed by a water physiotherapy clinic in Minneapolis, is intended to let an individual go in the water but sounds the alarm only if the head goes completely under and the visor floats away.

He said the product is for those people who decide that they want to go in the water but they're concerned once they're there.

"A fall in the water and drowning... is extremely silent, so most of the turtle applications are to make drowning audible," said Lyons, president of Terrapin Communications Inc. in Ottawa. "The fact that it's silent is what makes it so lethal."

The Lifesaving Society report said there has been progress in reducing drownings across Canada, reaching an all-time low of 410 water-related fatalities in 2004. That's down nine per cent from 2003 and a decrease of 12 per cent from the previous five-year average.

Yet despite ongoing awareness campaigns promoting water safety, the lead-up to the summer season has already seen several tragic drownings - at least five reported over the past weekend alone.

One man slipped and fell into a river in southern Alberta while taking pictures with his girlfriend.

The other four reported drownings in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario involved men in boating accidents, and they weren't wearing life-jackets.

"Most people think, 'Oh, it's not going to happen to me, or I'll have lots of time to put my life-jacket on,"' Byers said. "People that don't wear life-jackets usually store them under a faraway place so that if they were unexpectedly projected out of the water they wouldn't really have the ability to get their life-jacket."

"You wear a life-jacket just in case because you won't have time to put the life-jacket on if you need it. The life-jacket is just like a seatbelt in a boat. It's the same purpose, the same role."

Byers recommends having a whistle as well as flares, which are usually waterproof, that can be set off to alert others to your location.

Both Byers and Michele Mercier, national manager, swimming and water safety for the Canadian Red Cross, said it's important for older adults to make sure they're accompanied when out on the water.

Mercier also recommends telling someone staying on land, whether it's at the cottage or at home, about where and how for how long you're planning to go out on a boat and the general time you plan to be back. That way, if there's a problem or delay, it may be a signal that rescuers are needed, she said.

Mercier said boaters should remember the boat can only handle a certain weight and they should respect capacity limits.

As well, she said they should be aware of the effects of weather.

"We've had lots of rain recently, so (it) might be that the water levels or the currents might be stronger in certain areas," she said.