News | June 30, 2020

Keeping safe in and around the water during a pandemic

By Jessie Perkins Air Force Safety Center Public Affairs

With many local pools closed due to the pandemic many find themselves itching for the chance to get out and enjoy the water this summer. Natural bodies of water are becoming more popular warranting a look into how to mitigate the risks involved with not only close proximity to others, but the hazards lurking in the water.

Indeed, last summer was the last of its kind for the foreseeable future however, despite this new normal the risks associated with swimming and being around the water remain the same.

Some pools will be open, but if planning to enjoy a more natural setting like lakes, rivers, or the ocean, safety can be more challenging. Sandbars can hide what may seem like a safe dive into water that is much shallower that what it appears.

“In the last 12 months, eight drownings - involving Air Force personnel have occurred,” said Master Sgt. Sarah Lenker, the program manager for reports, analysis, and investigations at the Air Force Safety Center, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. 

Five of these fatalities occurred in oceans and rivers with three involving jumping or diving. Of the remaining, one involved no use of a life jacket and another involved alcohol, Lenker explained.

“Every summer, the Department of the Air Force strives to achieve zero preventable mishaps on and off duty,” said Michael Ballard, chief of Air Force occupational safety. “We owe it to our friends, colleagues, leadership and most of all our families to employ sound risk decision-making in all of our summertime activities.”

Ballard added, “I encourage our Air and Space professionals to take the proper precautions when engaging in water activities. Know the current water conditions, apply local water safety guidelines, swim with a buddy, and don’t swim beyond your skill level.”

Planned dives after thorough investigation of the water can minimize some of this risk, and remember to always include life jackets when boating or kayaking.

Beyond the obvious dangers of drinking or not knowing the body of water a swimmer is in, ocean undertows can pull them under, waves can knock them over, and they can encounter sudden drop-offs, eddies and whirlpools.

Lakes may seem less intimidating, but there are also drop offs, underwater obstructions and unexpected currents.

Running rivers can have rapids, hidden boulders and hydraulic jumps that can create churning waters known as “drowning machines”. This particular hazard can create a dangerous situation when water flows over a low-head dam dropping into the water below creating a back-wash or a current.

Mountain run-off from late snowmelt or rain causes rivers to run faster, deeper, and hide more boulders and silt.

Lenker provided her opinion on why these fatalities occur. “I believe it is because it isn’t something that people easily identify as high-risk. Since I have cross-trained into safety, I have realized how many Airmen we lose to drownings and now take water safety much more seriously.” she said.

Lenker also wanted to stress that situational awareness and proper planning could prevent most drownings that the Air Force experiences. 

“Personal ability, comfort level, and experience do not make up for inadequate planning and poor judgement,” Lenker explained. “Good swimmers, divers, and kayakers have all lost their lives because their plans were inadequate, or they made a last minute decision that unfortunately led to their death.”

Air Force Risk Management, Program Manager Leonard “Dr. Love” Jones gives a final thought before heading into summer water fun, “Enjoy, but respect all water and remember, natural water settings are not your calm swimming pool. Make sure you know what’s hidden before you get into the water.”