The Albany Fire Department would prefer not to respond to drowning calls this summer.

Its preference, explained Deputy Fire Marshal Sandy Roberts, is that people keep safety in mind as they venture into mid-valley waterways, making emergency calls unnecessary.

"Our No. 1 goal is to keep you safe on the water," she said.

To this end, the department again this year is offering life preservers to any person or family planning to spend time on the water. Residents can pick them up at any fire station in the city; they may also use them as loaner vests for the entire season.

"And then you may return them, or not," Roberts said.

With the weather heating up, Roberts said the department will respond to at least one water rescue call every week for the duration of the summer. The calls range from stranded boaters to missing swimmers, and each call carries a drowning risk for the people involved.

The department maintains a 20-person crew of water rescue personnel. Deploying two rescue boats and jet ski, a team can respond to any call within five minutes.

And while the water looks inviting and the weather is nice, paramedic Adam Bird explains how looks can be deceiving — and very dangerous — for the uninformed swimmer.

"This is actually a very dangerous river," he said of the Willamette. "The water looks calm, but it's actually a very strong current."

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, 85 percent of drownings could have been prevented if the victim was wearing a life preserver. 

Bird said even the strongest of swimmers can fall victim to the dangers in rivers. These include submerged objects, drop-offs, strong currents and strainers, which are submerged trees that act as a screen and can trap a swimmer under water against the flowing current.

Bird also said swimmers can become hypothermic in the river even on a hot day. This is because the body's core temperature will drop considerably when submerged in cool water for a long enough amount of time. 

Another danger for families on the river with children is the potential for distraction. 

"You know, you're grilling the hot dogs and you look away for just a few seconds and your child can be swept up," Roberts said. "So for this reason, it should be one person's job to keep their eyes on the children at all times."

The department is able to to offer the loaner life vests through the Albany Firefighters Community Assistance Fund, which through its annual golf tournament fundraiser provides such services. 

Oregon state law requires children under 13 to wear life preservers while on or near the water. Watercraft must carry enough life preservers for all passengers.

The Jefferson Fire District also offers loaner jackets at the Jefferson Thriftway on the corner of Mill and Ferry streets, across from the Jefferson boat ramp. The Corvallis Fire Department does not have a life jacket loaner program.

Contact reporter Neil Zawicki at 541-812-6099 or