TribLive: River, boating officials kick off season with plea for safety

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River, boating officials kick season off with plea for safety

MARY ANN THOMAS | Friday, April 27, 2018, 4:15 p.m.

The Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that boaters working the ropes to lock through its locks and dams must wear a life jacket.

Although it is highly recommended, most boaters in Pennsylvania are not required to wear life jackets during the summer boating season.

Boat passengers not involved in the locking process do not have to be wearing their life jackets, but their life jackets are required to be onboard.

Additionally, the Corps announced it will deploy River Rangers who will have the power to cite boaters who are required by law but not wearing a life jacket. The citation will cost that boater $130.

The Corps made the necessary fuss over water safety at its 2018 Water Safety Summit at the Aspinwall Riverfront Park on Friday. It’s a follow up to one last year, which the Corps pulled together after two young women drowned when their kayaks went over the Dashields dam on the Ohio River near Emsworth.

Friday’s event was nothing short of a show of force for water safety from government, business organizations and nonprofits vested in water safety.

Nearly 80 percent or more of drowning victims either weren’t wearing a life jacket, or if they were a boat operator, hadn’t taken a boater safety course in 2016, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Adding to the dangers are the fixed crest dams on the Allegheny and other rivers, which are maintained and under the jurisdiction of the Corps.

“It’s like and infinity pool,”said Kathy Griffin, the Corps chief of operations and regulatory division, Pittsburgh District. “You can’t see the dam if you paddling in a canoe or kayak.”

The Corps is adding extra signage warning boaters of the dams.

Others are increasing efforts to stem accidental drowning as well.

The Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company recently purchased a drone to “locate the incident scene quickly and verify,” said George McBriar, chief of the Blawnox company and the Allegheny County swift water flood response team

Col. John Lloyd, Commander of the Corps Pittsburgh District said, “We’re pleading to the recreational boating community.”

Unlike motor vehicles, most boat operators do not have to take a test or have to wear a life jacket when boating in the summer.

The exception are operators of personal watercraft and newer boaters born after Jan. 1, 1982 — they must take a boater education course, according to Mike Johnson, waterways conservation officer for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

It’s the same with life jackets: Most boaters don’t have to wear them, unless they are under the age of 13 in vessels under 20 feet, Johnson said.

The summit’s mantra is: “KNOW the waterways, TAKE a safety course, WEAR a life jacket.”

“If we grew up in Denver, we wouldn’t ski a black diamond immediately,” said Susan Crookston, founder and executive director of the Aspinwall Riverfront Park.

Joey-Linn Ulrich, executive director of Kayak Pittsburgh, asked paddlers to prepare a “float plan” that outlines where they will be paddling and to notify key family or friends with the details of the trip.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691, mthomas@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.