Is it time to extend PFD requirement?

Paddlers make their way across Rollins Pond last summer. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

Eight years ago, New York became the first state in the nation to enact a law requiring that life jackets be worn on all small boats from Nov. 1 to May 1 each year. The law was spawned after a series of cold water-related deaths around the state in the mid-2000s.

And while many Adirondack waterways are frozen solid for most of that time, climate change is making the ice cover and temperature of waterways fluctuate wildly from year to year.

Unfortunately, we were reminded of the need for this law just last week, when a Lake Placid woman died, likely from drowning, and another man from Vermont perished on Lake Champlain. Both were in canoes, and neither was wearing a life jacket when they hit the cold water.

The law was put in place to address the issue of falling into water that is too cold to really survive in. There is what’s called the “1-10-1” rule to cold water immersion. This states that the initial minute you are dunked into cold water, you will hyperventilate at a much higher rate than your normal breathing. If you don’t keep your airway clear during this initial minute, the chances of drowning are much higher.

The next segment of the 1-10-1 situation is the 10 minutes in which your body will cease to effectively function. Hands, fingers and extremities will go numb and become useless. This is when “swim failure” is likely to occur, and the need for a life jacket is paramount.

The last “1” is the hour it might take for hypothermia to become serious. With no life jacket on, hypothermia will set in sooner.

According to the weekly report released by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, last week saw Adirondack water temperatures in the 40s (the Lake Champlain average was 42 degrees).

For reference, do you remember when the plane crashed in the Hudson River in Jan. 2009? Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger managed to crash-land the plane with no fatalities. But many of the passengers, when rescued, were suffering from hypothermia due to the water temperature of 41 degrees.

Scientific American conducted an interview with Christopher McStay, an emergency room doctor at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital Center, shortly after the plane crash to determine what would happen if rescuers hadn’t responded so quickly.

“When you first go into extremely cold water there is this weird response called a cold shock response. People start to hyperventilate immediately. For one to three minutes you breathe very fast and deep, uncontrollably. If you go underwater, you could swallow water and die,” he told the magazine. “I can’t tell you how often this occurs but it’s certainly a very real phenomenon. Once that response goes away, you’re fine … for awhile.

“Generally, a person can survive in 41-degree F (5-degree C) water for 10, 15 or 20 minutes before the muscles get weak, you lose coordination and strength, which happens because the blood moves away from the extremities and toward the center, or core, of the body.”

So what’s the solution to preventing cold-water drownings like the two we saw last week?

New York led the way nearly a decade ago by introducing the law that requires life jackets when the water is cold. However, as you know, New York is a big place, and the weather, climate and water temperatures can vary by a lot. It’s not the kind of state where a one-size-fits-all law concerning the outdoors is sufficient.

While the man in Vermont obviously wasn’t a New York resident, the lake he was on is part of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Region 5. The DEC has broken the state into manageable regions, and extending the life jacket law in regions 5 and 6 might do some good.

Obviously, not everyone is going to follow the law, but what many fail to realize is that some of those laws are there for your own protection. Seat belts, helmets on motorcycles and life jackets are just a few of the things people find uncomfortable, but the law says you need them for good reason. And when it comes to cold-water rescues, the lack of a life jacket can put firefighters, forest rangers and others at risk as well.

I think it’s time that New York extend the cold-water season until at least the middle of May in DEC regions 5 and 6. Wearing the life jacket for an extra two weeks won’t cost anyone money (unless they’re given a ticket for not following the law), and has the potential to save lives.

The state has set the precedent for such an action, with specialized laws covering various parts of the state, most notably the High Peaks, where bear canisters are required and camp fires are prohibited. So adjusting the life jacket law to cover the Adirondacks, where the snow lingers longer and makes the rivers and lakes colder, should not be an issue.

Some people will ignore the law no matter what, and there’s little the state can do but enforce the law to the best of its ability. But for those who follow the law and use it as a guideline for safety, extending the cold-water life jacket rule could save their lives.

Because as the old saying goes, “if you need a life jacket, it’s too late to put one on.”