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Agencies are combining resources to prevent drownings on Sandy River

Officials said nine people have drowned in the Sandy River since 2019. They hope new equipment will help prevent further loss of life.

TROUTDALE, Ore. — Summer isn't officially here yet, but first responders in the Portland metro area are concerned about river safety as people look to cool off.

Earlier this week Portland hit new record highs for 90-degree days in the month of May. Understandably, many people took to local waterways in order to beat the heat and enjoy the sunshine. But water recreation comes with dangers, especially this early in the year.

Now four local agencies are combining resources to make the Sandy River safer.

"Corbett Fire has a drone, which changes the game," said John Plock, public information officer for the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.

The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, Corbett Fire, American Medical Response and Gresham Fire are pooling equipment — like a drone, jet ski and sonar radar — to respond to people in trouble efficiently.

"With the amount of drownings we've had over the last few years, this equipment allows us to get out faster, locate faster and hopefully have a good outcome if someone does get into trouble," said Corbett Fire Chief Rick Wunsch.

First responders said Corbett Fire's new drone uses thermal imaging to help locate people underwater. Drone footage can also be shared with a link between responding agencies.

Meanwhile, sonar equipment can also locate people who may be drowning.

Responders said the Sandy River is especially dangerous due to fluctuating water levels. High water levels in the winter become lower in summer months. That changes the topography of the river.

"From one year to the next somebody will walk out into a section of the river that they anticipate being one way and it's changed on them," Gresham Fire Captain Travis Soles said. "And so there might be a deep spot where they thought it was shallow."

That can lead to calls for help. Now Corbett Fire's drone can drop life jackets or defibrillators to people in need.

Jet skis that launched last year can also help responders reach people faster. But officials said one of the biggest changes this season is among the simplest.

"One of the biggest problems that we faced in the past is a lack of life jackets," said AMR river rescue tech Liza Soffey.

Wunsch said only one of the nine people who've drowned in the past four years was wearing a life jacket. But this year Corbett Fire added life jackets for visitors to use at the Dabney boat launch. Officials said they plan to add four more locations along the river this weekend, providing more than 120 life jacket in total.

"Number one safety tip is to wear a lifejacket — no matter what the water conditions are, life jackets save lives," Soffey said.

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