Swimsafe – How you can prevent drowning

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Our goal is zero lives lost.

In the past five years, 34 lives in Pierce County have been lost due to drownings. 

Pierce County Parks offers waterways that are great places to boat, paddle, fish, and swim but understanding the dangers of water can help prevent drownings and keep you and your friends and family safe while having fun. Below are ways to Swimsafe.

Check the Temp

Know the water: Be aware that cold water can kill, even on hot summer days.

Here in Washington, our lakes and other waterways have an average temperature of below 60 degrees. “Cold water” is any body of water that’s below 70 degrees and should be treated with caution. At Pierce County’s Lake Tapps, which is glacial fed, the average water temperature is 55 degrees. That’s cold! 

Falling or jumping into cold water can cause cold-water immersion, which can kill you within a few minutes. We recommend you check the temp of the lake before considering going for a dip or recreating on the lake. At Lake Tapps, we have a live temperature report available for you 24/7 onsite and online.

To understand the risks of cold water, below are the stages of cold-water immersion.

Stage one: Cold Water Shock

No one is safe from cold water shock – even the strongest of swimmers. Once your body is submerged in the cold water, your initial instinct is to survive. Within the first three to five minutes, your breathing becomes involuntarily uncontrollable. You begin gasping for air, hyperventilation starts, and panic sets in. Trying to think or function becomes almost impossible. You start to inhale water and drown. 

 Wearing a life jacket can help keep your head afloat to prevent you from inhaling water. However, the shock of the cold can cause death due to the sudden changes in your blood pressure, heart rate, and rhythm.

Stage two: Swim Failure

Within the first three to 30 minutes, you can also experience swim failure. Your arm and leg muscles start to cool too fast, impairing your ability to grip or move significantly. Your body loses its strength and ability to control your arms, legs, hands, and feet. Pulling yourself out of the water may not be possible. A lifejacket will help you stay afloat and keep your core warm if you lose consciousness. 

Stage three: Hypothermia

If you survive cold water shock and swim failure, the next thing to worry about after the first 30 minutes is hypothermia. Hypothermia happens when your core body temperature is lower than 95 degrees. Your body is losing heat faster than it can produce to keep your vital organs warm, which can lead to unconsciousness and death.

Stage four: Circum-Rescue Collapse

This stage can happen before, during, or after you are rescued and removed from the water. You are at risk of cardiac arrest due to the sudden drop in blood pressure. Inhaled water may damage your lungs and heart problems may occur from cold blood from your arms and legs flowing to your body’s core.

Wear a Lifejacket

The most important thing you can do is wear a lifejacket to help prevent drownings. 

Drownings happen when you:

  • Are too cold
  • Are too tired
  • Are too far from safety
  • Have had too much sun
  • Have had too much strenuous activity
  • Don't know how to swim well
  • Use alcohol or drugs
  • Don't wear a lifejacket 

Need a lifejacket? 

East Pierce Fire & Rescue offers free lifejackets for loan at:

Know Your Limits

Keep in mind at Pierce County’s Lake Tapps and Lake Spanaway, there are no lifeguards on duty.  Safety is your priority.  

  • Regardless of a swimmer's abilities, coldness can cause trouble for anyone. Prevent tragedy by wearing a lifejacket to stay warmer and above water.  
  • Never swim alone. Keep away from boats by staying inside the buoy line. 
  • Stay close to shore and rest if you are cold or tired.

In an emergency: Do not hesitate, immediately call 911

Swimsafe Sponsors

These agencies have been meeting regularly to develop strategies and a community education program designed to promote water safety.

Pierce County Parks Logo Opens in new windowPierce County Sheriff Logo Opens in new windowEast Pierce Fire and Rescue Logo Opens in new window
Cascade Water Alliance Logo Opens in new window
Dieringer School District Logo Opens in new windowSumner-Bonney Lake School District Logo Opens in new windowBonney-Lake Police Logo Opens in new windowCity of Bonney-Lake logo Opens in new window

WA State Parks logo Opens in new windowYMCA_Gordon Family Logo Opens in new window
Gordon Family YMCA

History of the Swimsafe Program

Swimsafe is a campaign that launched in May 2013 with the goal of keeping swimmers afloat. The campaign was created in response to the tragedy that occurred in the summer of 2012 when three people lost their lives on Lake Tapps, a record number of drownings to occur in a short period of time. 

The Lake Tapps community stepped up to bring hope out of tragedy by creating a multi-layer drowning prevention campaign to help swimmers and boaters who enjoy recreation on Lake Tapps and other Pierce County waterways stay safe.