MOUNT VERNON — Water safety is crucial, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. That’s the philosophy behind the new signs placed at the access points along the Kokosing River last week.
Knox County Park District director Lori Totman decided to look into potential signage warning the public of the dangers of wild waterways and providing information on how to stay safe. She began the search for information, ironically, shortly before two drownings that occurred last month.
Totman began by researching safety signs at waterways across Ohio. She wanted the signs placed at the access points to be simple, but effective. She eventually decided to use an acronym, “ACT NOW,” to outline six ways to stay safe in the water.
“People don’t usually read signs and if they do, they don’t want to read long, wordy ones,” Totman explained. These signs are quick and easy to read. Totman hopes the acronym will give the public an easy way to remember water safety tips.
“Even if people remember just a few of these things, I’ll feel we’ve accomplished something,” she said.
The tips include the following:
A — Always wear a life jacket or other personal flotation device. This is Totman’s number one piece of advice, even for strong swimmers.
“The river is wild, you never know what can happen,” she said.
Totman is quick to add that the personal flotation device should be worn, not held on to or used as a seat or back rest, as a quick current can whisk unsecured devices downstream.
C — Check flow rates. Flow rates describe how fast the water is moving and are measured in cubic feet per second (CFS). The signs include a QR code that redirects to USGS.gov, where smartphone users can see the most recent flow rates taken by a gauge in the Kokosing River. The gauge is located upriver from Riverside Park and measures the rate every 15 minutes.
A good flow rate for canoeing, kayaking and tubing is between 100 and 300 CFS. Totman noted that during the recent drownings, the flow rate was close to 2,000 CFS.
T — Take temperatures into account. This includes both water and air temperatures, which combined should be at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit. While it can be tempting to float down the river on the first warm day of spring, water temperatures rise much more slowly than air temperatures. If boaters tip over when the water is cold, they could put themselves at risk for hypothermia.
N —Never, ever swim, tube, kayak or canoe alone. This is especially important for people who are not strong swimmers.
O — Observe the river. Look for fast flowing currents and murkiness. Totman recommends not exiting the water if you can’t see your toes when you step in.
“If the visibility is bad and you get sucked under an obstacle, even if you come with someone, will they be able to find you?” said Totman.
W — Watch for river hazards such as fallen trees, large rocks and debris. Totman recommends staying away from waterway obstacles, as these are places where the current is more likely to suck both boats and people under the water.
The current signs are laminated pieces of bright pink paper, but Totman hopes to install more permanent fixtures at all river access points in the county. She also said there have been talks between the park district and other entities across multiple counties about installing more flow rate river gauges, but there are no concrete plans yet.
“No one county could shoulder the cost alone,” said Totman, adding that a gauge costs approximately $40,000, plus an addition $10,000 for maintenance each year.
The initiative to add more safety and informational signage is not unique to Knox County. Natalie Privu of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said that park districts across the state are noticing the need for signage at river access points, as well as more recreational education.
“Several communities in Ohio are beginning to explore ways they can provide recommendations to help determine if the conditions in a river are conducive for recreation,” said Privu, who serves as natural resource programs administrator for the multiple divisions of the ODNR.
Educating the public on how to make wise choices is key, since all forms of outdoor recreation come with risk.
“Rivers are dynamic and so are the factors that can influence river safety like water quality, water temperature, and water flow rate and depth,” said Privu.
While the ODNR already helps communities develop educational materials and signage, Privu indicated that there may be a statewide informational campaign at some point in the future.
“We’ve begun preliminary discussions about what might be the best way to implement a system to help recreationists decide to enter the river or not,” she said. “We’re open to hearing ideas.”
More information about on waterway safety and boating safety courses is available at watercraft.ohiodnr.gov.
Mike Miller, boating law enforcement administrator for the parks and watercraft division of ODNR, said he believes social media is one of the most effective ways that the ODNR and local park officials can communicate water safety principals to the public.
“One of the big keys is just keeping safety information in front of people all the time,” said Miller.
Miller advised river recreationists to have a “float plan.” This means telling someone what your water recreation plans are so that person can alert the proper authorities if you don’t return.
“The number one way to be safe around the water is to wear a life jacket,” he said. “Number two is to make sure your skills and abilities match what you’re doing. Number three, make sure you have a float plan so someone knows when you’re going to be home.”