Keeping swimmers safe is a challenging mission for Pierce County Swim Safe program

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — While the waters of Lake Tapps look cool and inviting they have a tragic history of being very deadly.

Here on Lake Tapps, 2012 was a year this community would like to forget — but because it’s so painful they know it’s one they have to remember.

“The one that really hit home was the last day of high school,” says Todd Green, who heads marine patrol for the city of Bonney Lake.

He knows all too well that the job isn’t all fun in the sun on Lake Tapps.

“I grew up on this lake,” he says. “I’ve been here my whole life.”

The office with the city of Bonney Lake has one call that he dreads every summer. He dreads drownings, something he says is nearly always preventable.

“It’s a sad part of the job,” he says.

And that day in 2012? It was the death of local high school student Quinton Boggs, who is memorialized in the center of the small brick monument to victims who’ve drowned here. This cold water lake is too much for even an able-bodied football player like Boggs.

“You try to find some positive in a tragedy like that,” says Green. “I think the best thing we can do to honor his memory is to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Boggs’ drowning was one of several in that summer of 2012. The community rallied and from there, the Swim Safe program was born with the mission of preventing drownings. The lessons here on Lake Tapps can be life saving anywhere in our often frigid Northwest waters.

“As long as we have we have a glacier filling our water bodies here,” says Dina Sutherland with East Pierce Fire and Rescue, “we’re going to have a problem with cold water.”

Sutherland’s agency is part of a the Swim Safe program. She speaks at schools and assemblies all year around. Remember those ice bucket challenges a few years ago? She says that dumping of super cold water on folks illustrates perfectly the first way that Lake Tapps can kill.

It’s called Cold Water Shock—and if that involuntary reflex gasp to icy water happens underwater—you’re likely near instantly dead. She tells of an example of two teenagers who jumped into the cold water a few summers ago, but one didn’t survive the plunge, which was only a few feet off the water.

“His reflex was underwater and it instantly affected his entire body,” says Sutherlin.

The other way Lake Tapps kills is slower: just as deadly, but kind of sneaky. You might know the signs: chattering teeth, goosebumps, blue lips — all signs to get out of the water. The other sign of what’s called Cold Water Fatigue could mean it’s too late for you: muscle fatigue.

“The cold water really zaps your energy, even if you’re a strong swimmer,” says Sutherlin. “We actually had a lifeguard drown in our lake once, because the cold water rendered him not able to swim as well.”

And while life jackets are easy for the little ones—as swimmers get older and make decisions for themselves, they’re not always the wisest choices.

“We have yet to recover a drowning victim who’s been wearing a life jacket,” says Sutherlin. “It just doesn’t happen, life jackets float, but they’re uncomfortable they’re cumbersome. We’ve heard it all. Especially our teens, they really don’t want to wear them.”

And Cold Water Fatigue hits fast, could be less than 10 to 15 minutes. Todd Green, unfortunately, sees it all the time.

“You can tell they’re getting exhausted. And that is where people are getting into trouble,” says Officer Green. “Stop swimming to the buoys, stop swimming to the swim lines. If you get tired, you can’t just stand up and take a rest.”

And the lake is tricky too, as the top few feet can get up to 60-70 degrees in the summer. But grave danger lurks lower.

“Anything down below that it starts to rapidly drop and three feet down it drops to probably around 40 degrees,” says Officer Green.

And drownings are almost always silent — never usually a call for help.

“A lot of times when they get in that dire position and they go underwater when they come up again,” says Sutherlin, “they’re going to have to take a breath.”

But despite the odds, Swim Safe worked. For several years, there were no drownings at all at Lake Tapps. Zero. Zilch. But lessons sometimes need re-learning—and drownings have returned. Folks with Swim Safe are not giving up. They’re reaching out, speaking up, hopefully educating and preventing—because the odds are not in the swimmer’s favor here.

Wanna try it out for yourself? Flip a coin.

“An average adult has a 50/50 chance of surviving a 50-yard swim in 50-degree water. That sums up this area on Lake Tapps perfectly.”

The Swim Safe folks call it the 50/50 rule. And if you flip that coin and take a chance on the cold water and live—you’ll flip it again every time you brave the icy water. She says she’s heard from the families of drowning victims who don’t understand how a stretch of water swam over and over again can be fatal. But, the odds sadly remain the same every time you get into really cold water.

One thing the folks at Swim Safe would like to do is install a few buoys in some swimming areas that have the greatest numbers of fatalities. Ideally an illuminated reader board would flash the cold temperature in the deeper layers of the water in real-time.

It would let swimmers know the immediate danger that lurks underneath the otherwise calm and inviting waters of Lake Tapps. But it’s a project that takes money to pull off, so for now, it’s just a life-saving idea.