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'Definitely seeing a rise in incidents on the water' | Paramedics to patrol Austin lakes on police boats as part of pilot program

Austin-Travis County EMS is working to speed up response times for water rescues on Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake.

AUSTIN, Texas — As Memorial Day weekend gets underway, Lake Austin is seeing celebration after celebration.

Leo Otto is spending his birthday on the water.

"It's probably the hottest day in May, one of the hottest. Might as well just go out here for the party, get out here on the water," Otto said. 

But as the crowds and parties ramp up, first responders are prioritizing public safety.

Austin-Travis County EMS (ATCEMS) and the Austin Police Department (APD) are teaming up on a pilot program they called "Lake Med," where paramedics will be riding on the lake using APD's boats and their medical gear to access patients on the water. They will keep tabs on Lake Austin, Lady Bird Lake and Decker Lake.

There are 21 miles of Lake Austin, but according to one paramedic, there are only three to four locations easily accessible from land.

"With the increased population growth here in Travis County and the increased boat traffic and people on the water, we're definitely seeing a rise in incidents on the water. So we felt that it was a good time to make our presence and be there for the public," said Walter Finch, captain of Austin-Travis County Special Operations Lake Med.

Texas Parks and Wildlife reports there were 20% more boating accidents last year than before the pandemic. Last year, drowning made up 50% of deaths on the water and was the leading cause of deaths in boating fatalities. 

Finch said the pilot program aims to help decrease response times for first responders like himself. He said this is the first time they are on the water full-time. 

"Our access time is a lot quicker versus if we were on land trying to figure out where they're at the best access point to get there on the boats. We have significantly better access," Finch said. 

He is a first responder out of water no more. 

Anyone out on the water this weekend in an emergency is encouraged to dial 911 and give first responders the best location possible. ATCEMS is using an app to triangulate locations because there are no good mile markers or addresses out there on the lakes.

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