Watching his 12-year-old son wade ashore the Sacramento River, Chris Stirk had no idea he was breaking a law that required children to wear life vests until Niko King, assistant chief of the Sacramento Fire Department, crouched beside his beach chair and told him.
A sign declaring the ordinance, which Stirk said he missed, is several yards away from the main entrance to Sand Cove Park Beach. He never noticed it in the five years coming to the beach, he said.
Stirk's surprise highlights the challenge officials face in educating the public about water safety. Yet Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna made headway Friday when he and other officials unveiled signs with free rental life jackets hanging from them at Sand Cove Park and Paradise Beach.
Officials expect crowds to flock to Sacramento's rivers this weekend, with temperatures forecast to hit 105 degrees today, according to the National Weather Service.
They hope to prevent another drowning, like of a 16-year-old boy last week in the Sacramento River near Sand Cove Park.
Fire Department Battalion Chief Rick Rethford said a body matching the boy's description was found Wednesday evening.
Serna plans to stock Sacramento's river areas with life jackets and to air public service announcements without using taxpayer dollars.
He said he donated $1,000 from his campaign treasury to the fund.
Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, and City Councilman Kevin McCarty each committed $1,000, according to Serna.
Additional donations by Sutter Health, UC Davis Health System and the Sierra Health Foundation brought the total fund to about $10,000, Serna said.
According to Jeff Leatherman, parks director for Sacramento County, it costs roughly $1,500 to restock a board with life vests for the whole summer, since jackets frequently are not returned to the boards.
Serna's fund will pay for the two boards added at the Sacramento River, while the nonprofit American River Parkway Foundation will manage seven boards already in place on the American River, under a program called "Kids Don't Float."
Leatherman said city and county representatives will meet soon to determine where to add more boards.
Despite this progress, several officials voiced concerns about the program.
While it is illegal for children 13 and younger to swim in Sacramento's rivers without a life vest, not every beach stores free jackets. City Councilman Steve Cohn said parents who learn about this regulation from signs at the beach are unlikely to drive elsewhere to get the vests.
Leatherman said it is unclear where funds will come from to continue providing the jackets next summer.
Roughly six people drown every summer in Sacramento, King said. The Fire Department's average response time to a reported drowning is eight minutes, according to King, but often that's too late to make a difference.
"These are 100 percent preventable incidents that occur," King said. "We try to put the signs in place, but (the life vest law is) incredibly difficult to enforce because of the accessibility of our waterways."
While King said officials have fined combative parents $100 for violating the law, he said education rather than punishment must be the focus of the safety campaign.
King did not fine Stirk. Instead, he smiled when Stirk's 12-year-old and his friend joined Stirk's 9-year-old and his friend in sporting life jackets at Sand Cove Park, made possible by Serna's fund.
When the older boys ran into the water without tying the vests' buckles, Stirk shouted, "Hey, put it on right!"
LIFE JACKET LOAN PROGRAM
(Some participants have life jacket use requirements. Contact participating locations for specifics.)
El Dorado Hills – El Dorado Hills Fire Department
Station 84: (916) 933-3471
Station 85: (916) 933-6623
Elk Grove – Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department
Stations 71 and 75: (916) 405-7100
Folsom – Folsom Fire Department
Station 35 (916) 984-2280
Galt – Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department
Station 45: (916) 405-7100
Granite Bay – South Placer County Fire Department
Stations 1 and 6: (916) 791-7059
Loomis – South Placer County Fire Department
Stations 3 and 5: (916) 791-7059
Meadow Vista – Placer Hills Fire District
Station 1: (530) 878-0405
Roseville – Roseville Fire Department
Station 1 (916) 774-5800
Sacramento – Sacramento Fire Department
Stations 5, 8, 11, 15, 60: (916) 808-1300
Sacramento County – Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District
Stations 31, 32, 59, 61, 63, 65, 110: (916) 859-4300
West Sacramento – West Sacramento Fire Department
Station 41: (916) 617-4741
Station 42: (916) 617-4742
Station 43: (916) 617-4743
Station 44: (916) 617-4744
Station 45: (916) 617-4600
Sacramento State Aquatic Center, Lake Natoma: (916) 278-2842
Smartville – Englebright Lake: (530) 432-6427
Winters – Lake Solano Park: (530) 795-2990
– Cathy Locke
Call The Bee's Jeffrey Dastin, (916) 321-1037.