It’s almost that time of year when thousands will flock to Penticton’s river channel for a leisurely seven-kilometre float toward Skaha Lake, but for first responders, this is also a time for heightened vigilance.
The upcoming tourism and float season was discussed during the Safety & Security Advisory Committee meeting on March 29.
Fire Chief Larry Watkinson gave committee members a rundown on their plans for this year.
“The Penticton Fire Department will again be conducting river rescue channel rescues once needed,” said Watkinson. “
“We had 15 near-drownings last year, which was a unique year, with fast-moving water.”
Education will be a large component in the coming months, encouraging the public to call 911 when someone is in distress, the city said.
The fire department will continue to work with partner agencies to ensure they receive “early notification when someone is in distress in the water… because as you know, seconds count when you’re drowning,” said Watkinson.
“We have really dialed in our rescue program with our swift water rescue team,” he explained.
“The system we’re using works very well. The education piece is a very big part of it. The challenge we face is we have been doing this for years but we’re seeing larger groups, bigger floatation devices and people tying them together.”
Kristen Dixon, the city’s general manager of infrastructure, said signage improvements will be made to help traffic flow.
“On the transportation side, we have been focused on the issues in terms of parking, creating a pickup/dropping off zone, and working with stakeholders to make that as good as possible, recognizing we have limited jurisdiction in that area,” she said.
In terms of safety, committee member Deirdre Riley questioned whether children are required to wear life jackets.
Watkinson said that, according to federal law, everyone must be wearing a life jacket, but that it’s difficult to enforce.
Committee member Matt Taylor questioned whether Penticton is sharing best practices with other cities that have similar waterways.
Watkinson said the marine rescue program was created in 2017 and has become more robust each year.
He said Penticton has consulted with Calgary and Hawaii and has conducted a lot of training in the area.
“I get calls on a regular basis on the development of our program and I’m quite proud of it,” Watkinson said.