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After Tragic Drowning, Missoula Fire Department Training Officer Gives River Safety Tips [AUDIO]

River Rescue
photo courtesy of the MFD

On Sunday, a six year-old girl drowned in a tragic accident on the Bitterroot River, when the boat she was riding in with her father capsized.

Matt Kerns is the chief training officer with the Missoula City Fire Department, and on Tuesday offered his experienced advice regarding river safety.

“I would say its incumbent on every boater to first of all, boat within their skill level,” Kerns said. “We’re blessed with a lot of rivers here in Western Montana, and I thinks it’s tempting to get out there and go a little bit beyond your skill level. Rivers are high right now, so be a savvy boater. Obviously, make sure everyone has a personal flotation device. Another thing is to have what is called a ‘throw bag’, a bag with a rope inside and you’re able to throw that to a victim, or somebody who’s having difficulty swimming.”

When it comes to jumping into a river to rescue someone, Kerns said the fire department rescue crews have a system to effect a successful rescue.

“We have an algorithm we use  on the river, reach, throw, row, go,” Kerns said. “If we can reach to someone, reach would be the easiest, throw means having a throw bag, row would be rowing out to them in a rescue boat, and then go would be physically getting in the water without the protection of a cat-raft or rescue raft. That would be our last option, even as rescue professionals. We’re not saying we won’t do it, in fact, we do it quite often, but that’s the last step in the rescue algorithm.”

Kerns said the warm weather is coming and time for what fire department crews call the ‘tuber hatch’, when people float the rivers on inner tubes.

“Stretches where we have big, calm rivers like the Clark Fork are popular,” Kerns said. “But on the Bitterroot, there’s a lot of irrigation, and that’s what happened in that tragic drowning. Those low-head dams that were put in place years ago to divert the water for irrigation purposes, and they create a really unique situation. Some really dangerous hydraulics get created on the back sides of these low-head dams. We’ve had a push to eliminate these low-head dams in the city limits because we recognize the unique potential for situations like this.”

Kerns says being a ‘savvy boater’ means knowing the river you’ll be floating, checking the internet for stream flow and to check for high, fast water or obstructions in the river.

“Keep track of your friends, put your kids into swimming lessons right away. I don’t think even four years old is too soon to teach your kids to swim We have so much water recreation in Western Montana,so take your kids out and make them savvy and strong swimmers as early as possible.”

Matt Kerns with the Missoula City Fire Department

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