CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — As swimmers and divers take to the island’s tropical waters to enjoy some ocean fun, Marine firefighters are gearing up for potential emergencies.

This year firefighters from the Marine Corps Bases Japan Fire Department have two new two-person rescue Jet Skis, said Eric Rhode, assistant fire chief of operations. The speedy watercraft help firefighters reach victims quickly, often before the Japan Coast Guard or military helicopters can arrive, he said.

Each Jet Ski has a rescue sled attached to the back to load stranded victims. Two will be kept at Camp Kinser, and two more are expected to arrive at Camp Foster this month, Rhode said.

But safety officials warn that improved rescue capabilities aren’t a green light for people to take more risks in water activities.

Last year, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Chad Love drowned while diving near Manza Point. Police have said Love may have come across a wave that sent him crashing into a reef.

Since 2000, 19 military personnel have drowned, according to statistics from the Marine Corps Bases Installation Safety office.

Marine officials launched a rigorous water-safety campaign in 2004, the same year five military personnel drowned. Officials credit the educational awareness with helping decrease fatalities in recent years. In 2005, there were no drownings, and one airman drowned in 2006.

No water fatalities have been reported this year.

Water enthusiasts should be aware that wave conditions change rapidly and that having alternate points to enter and leave the ocean is important, said safety specialist Shawn Curtis of the Installation Safety office at Camp Foster.

"Any place can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing," Curtis said.

Curtis said swimmers and divers should look for easy exits, away from cliffs and coral that can be dangerous if the tide changes.

For surfers and snorkelers, large currents, swells and rough waves should be deterring factors for going into the water, Curtis said.

"If you get to a place where you’re the only one there, you haven’t discovered a new beach," he said. "The locals aren’t there for a reason."

Curtis said surfers and scuba divers should talk to locals and water safety experts before attempting to ride the waves or dive into the deep.

Divers should also keep their gear in shape.

"That is biggest thing we recommend is making sure divers are getting their gear serviced annually," said Charles Glas, a scuba instructor at Kadena Marina. Check-ups when filling tanks at scuba shops during the diving season also are a good idea.

Divers and snorkelers also need to beware of the poisonous and deadly creatures that lurk in the sea, particularly the box jellyfish that infests the waters toward late August through September, Curtis said. Even dead box jellyfish can sting, Curtis said.

Stonefish, lionfish and sea urchins can also deliver deadly or excruciating stings.

"If you’re not familiar with aquatic life, don’t pick it up, don’t touch it," Curtis said.

Water safety tipsAlways check local weather and sea conditions — even a typhoon several hundred miles off shore can affect coastal locations.Never go alone in the water; always have a dive or swim buddy.Take a swim class to bone up on water skills.Never exceed your ability level in the water.In the event of a water emergency, call 118 to reach the Japanese Coast Guard. They will notify base emergency personnel and ask local boats to assist.Source: Shawn Curtis, a safety specialist with the Marine Corps Base Installation Safety office, 645-3806

For information on certified dive classes and water safety:

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