River not safe for swimming, town warns

FORT FRANCES—While it probably won’t happen until next spring, the town will be installing buoys and ladders at the dock at the end of First Street East in an effort to give swimmers a safer place to be.
But the move doesn’t mean the town necessarily supports people swimming in the upper river—and will continue to promote water safety and warn of the dangers of the river.
“To encourage or promote swimming along a riverfront that also serves as docks for boaters and a service area for plane traffic is a dangerous practice,” Community Services manager George Bell said in a report to council at Monday night’s meeting.
“[But] we recognize that the waterfront is a popular swimming area, and in all practicality our ability to enforce a ‘no swimming’ area [there] is not reasonable or desirable,” he added.
“As a result, we must do everything possible to encourage the public to use the unsupervised swimming area [surrounded by buoys], educate them on the dangers of swimming in boating areas and areas where there is excessive current,” noted Bell.
“We would caution everyone that the current on the river is dangerous when the gates at the dam are open.”
“It has been our policy that [the riverfront] is not a swimming area. That’s based on the fact it’s not safe to swim around boats,” Coun. Tannis Drysdale, chair of the Community Services executive committee, said in an interview Tuesday.
“We decided, because no matter how much we discouraged them it was occurring, [that] the best solution going forward was to eliminate the risk of swimmers and boats colliding in one area along the waterway,” she added.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to order everything and have it in place until next year, but it is our intention to buoy off an area so swimmers and boaters aren’t competing for space and eliminate, as best we can, the potential for a serious injury to occur,” Coun. Drysdale continued.
“We’re hoping that as soon as we set up a safe, secure, appropriate, albeit unsupervised, swimming area, people will make better decisions about swimming along Front Street, and [that] parents will talk to their kids about not swimming at the Rainy Lake Sports & Tackle dock.”
Coun. Drysdale added the town also will install a ladder at the government dock out at Pither’s Point.
“It’s our preferred place for people to swim,” she said, adding the reason why some youths don’t like swimming there is that once they jump off the dock, they have to swim all the way back to shore to get out of the water.
And since the beach at Pither’s Point does not have a lifeguard, an emergency phone will be installed at the park office, too, just in case there’s an emergency and no other phone is readily available.
The town also will post signage stating the riverfront docks are “unsupervised swimming areas,” as well as stage a campaign each spring educating parents and youths on the dangers of swimming in an unsafe environment.
Council had Debbie Murray, senior lifeguard for the town and coach of the local Cyclone swim team, on hand Monday night to share some information regarding the benefits of supervised swimming and the hazards of swimming in the river.
Murray said according to the “Drowning Report” published by the Lifesaving Society of Ontario, fewer drownings occur under lifeguard supervision, and that almost all water-related deaths in Ontario occur in situations not supervised by them.
“With that, people should choose to swim in the safest area possible. That would be an area that has a controlled environment with supervision at all times, like a municipal swimming pool,” she noted.
But it’s a fact that people do swim in the upper river here—and the public must be cautious if they choose to do so, warned Murray.
“If you are to look at preventable water-related deaths, the biggest increase in 2001 was in the area of river and stream drownings, up 38 percent from 2000 and up 22 percent over the past five-year average,” she noted.
“We are all aware that the current in our river is at its strongest when gates of the dam are open,” she continued.
“Abitibi makes us all aware of gate openings through public announcements. Swimming in the river should be avoided when there is a significant current,” Murray stressed.
“But knowing that people are swimming around the waterfront area, the safest choice would be at points where there is less current and not a boating area.
“The next safest place would be at the docks that buoyed off where boats can’t enter,” Murray said.
She noted the majority of drowning victims are people who can swim, and that further water survival and lifesaving skills are needed for people to be “water smart” and “avoid becoming a statistic.”
As well, swimmers must be careful of diving or jumping into water. Six victims in Ontario died this way in 2001, five of which occurred on lakes and rivers.
Murray also offered a few of water safety tips, including:
•Always closely supervise young children near water—be within arm’s reach of your children;
•Always swim with a buddy—never go alone regardless of your age and swimming ability; and
•Make wise choices when near water—know your water conditions when choosing an area in which to swim.
Upon recommendation from the Community Services executive committee, council voted Monday night in favour of purchasing buoys and ladders, posting signage, and taking the other aforementioned safety measures to make swimming safer here.
(Fort Frances Times)