‘You’re our frontline out here’ Chicago Fire Department and Streeterville Neighborhood Advocates hold life ring demonstration

By B. David Zarley | Staff Writer

Residents gathered in Streeterville at the Nicholas J. Melas Centennial Fountain on a clear morning on April 28 for a demonstration on how to use life buoys.

Organized by the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) and the Streeterville Neighborhood Advocates (SNA), Lt. Brian Otto of scuba team 688 taught attendees the best way to throw a life ring, before letting them take a few throws of their own.

Lt. Brian Otto of the Chicago Fire Department throws a life ring into the Chicago River  April 28, 2018. Photo by B. David Zarley

With a dive boat from scuba team 688 maneuvering offshore, Otto explained the importance of knowing what to do during a water emergency. “Residents and passersby are far from powerless,” he said. “They are in fact, often on the frontline for marine rescues.”

According to Otto, the most important thing to do is to call 911 and let the dispatchers know what is happening and where. For river incidents, providing information on the emergency’s location—like “near the fountain” or “under a bridge’—and what side of the river the incident is on, can save precious time.

Once you call 911, the next best step is to encourage the person in distress to swim toward the shore. According to Otto, many victims can swim, but begin to panic and lose their faculties after the initial shock of falling in. Encouragement can be enough to snap them into focus. Any passing boats should be flagged down as well, as they can potentially pluck a victim from the water before CFD arrives.

Next, life buoy rings should be thrown toward the person in distress. The rings are intended to keep someone afloat until rescuers can reach them and each ring can
support three or four people, Otto said. While the ring should be thrown however
feels most comfortable, tossing the buoy upwind or up-current can help push it
toward a drowning victim.

After learning the ropes from Otto, residents took turns tossing the ring to a CFD diver floating in the river.

“I expected it to be so heavy I couldn’t lift it,” said Kathy Schubert, a Lincoln Park
resident who got a throw in. “I was able to lift it, and I got it over the edge.”

Otto discouraged potential rescuers from jumping into the water themselves, as a drowning person can be remarkably dangerous in their fear and could pull them down. Also, the Chicago River doesn’t provide many places to get out once you
have taken the plunge. If you must jump in, a ring or life jacket should be taken
with you. If you fear getting pulled under or hurt by the victim, the ring or jacket can be handed over from a safe distance.

“Having grown up on the water, I’ve had this education most of my life,” said Craig
Kaiser, head of Streeterville Neighborhood Advocates and the organizer of the demo.
“I thought it was important to share it.”

Published on May 2, 2017