Park rangers highlight water safety during mock rescue of boaters on Folsom Lake

When the kayak flipped over, it didn’t make a large splash or draw much attention. And when a nearby paddle boarder tried to assist the kayaker but fell into the lake, it was far enough from shore that it didn’t make a noise.

Nonetheless, a watchful lifeguard sprang into action, grabbing an emergency flotation device and his board, and paddled out into Folsom Lake. He knew he had only enough room for one person, so before he left his tower, he quickly called for backup.

This was the scene repeated over and over at Folsom Lake on Wednesday as lifeguards, park rangers and law enforcement officers with the California State Parks performed a mock rescue as a training exercise.

Backup arrived swiftly for the lifeguard, a personal watercraft speeding across the lake to come assist. The personal watercraft rescued one of the swimmers and swiftly brought them to shore, the lifeguard and other swimmer in tow on an attached rescue board.

The personal watercraft was followed by a patrol boat, which collected the lifeguard’s board, the kayak and the paddle board and returned them to the beach.

On the beach waited rangers who came by car and set up a tiny triage station with emergency blankets. After the swimmers were helped onto the beach, a ranger immediately began asking the swimmers questions: What is your name? Do you know where you are? How long were you on the water? What happened?

They identified whether the swimmers needed medical attention and whether there was anything the rangers could do for them.

Once the mock rescue was complete, the rangers reset and got ready to do it again.

Following the mock rescue, K-9 Peace Officer Sasha Wessitsh demonstrated how he works with his canine partner Ben. Wessitsh approached the “agitator” — a man dressed in protective gear — on the beach and asked him a few questions. When the agitator began to fight Wessitsh, he called for Ben, who had been observing through the windshield of Wessitsh’s patrol car, to take down the suspect.

All of Wessitsh’s commands to Ben are in Czech because Ben was born and raised in the Czech Republic. Wessitsh said it also helps to obfuscate his commands, which usually cannot be understood by the suspect.

Water rescues and K-9 takedowns are exciting, but rangers would prefer if they never had to do them because every person in the park followed safety rules, said Sgt. Ryan Steele, a state park peace officer who supervises the lifeguard division.

“We encourage our lifeguards to make preventative actions,” Steele said. “Because if it comes to the point where they’re making a rescue, sometimes it’s almost too late.”

At Folsom Lake, this includes educating the public on water safety and letting swimmers and boaters know ahead of time about dangerous areas on the water, Steele said.

Folsom Lake does average 300 to 400 water rescues per year, Steele said, but many can be prevented by following some basic rules around the water.

First, always swim near a lifeguard. Steele said this should be “your No. 1 priority”; a lifeguard cannot rescue you if they cannot see you.

Second, Steele said, was to always wear a life jacket, because “even the best swimmers might find themselves in a situation where they need it.”

Third is to keep up with safe boating practices, like being sober and having a designated driver.

“Alcohol and drugs don’t mix with water very well,” Steele said. “They always end up in a recipe for disaster.”

Lifeguards are on duty throughout the summer at the California State Parks waterways, and they are a precious resource. The State Parks are currently recruiting seasonal lifeguards as well as State Park peace officer cadets for the lifeguard and ranger classifications.

Anyone interested in a position as a lifeguard or park peace officer can visit LiveTheParksLife.com for more information.

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