CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/22 June) — All river guides from the six whitewater rafting adventure outfitter agencies in the city will undergo refresher training in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Tuesday, an official said.
Dorothy Pabayo, chair of the city government’s Task Force Rapids said 109 river guides from the six agencies will undergo the training at the City Tourism Hall on Tuesday.
She said the one-day training will be managed by experts from the Philippine National Red Cross.
“We think that the guides which are crucial to the safety of the tourists need an additional refresher course of first aid and CPR,” she said
She added the task force will check all the 109 inflatable rafts and their equipment used by tourists in crossing the rapids in Cagayan de Oro River.
Mayor Oscar Moreno formed Task Force Rapids to ensure the safety of tourists in the aftermath of the rafting accident that caused the death of Aizza Calipusan Balbin, a 26-year-old nurse from Bohol.
Pabayo, some of Balbin’s relatives, representatives of Kagay Kagay Journey-White Water Rafting and Kayaking went to the accident site at the limestone outcropping in Barangay Bayanga, where they lighted candles and prayed for the victim.
Media was not invited to the affair for the privacy of the family, Pabayo said.
An estimated 5,000 tourists from all over the country arrive here every year to experience the thrill and roar of the Cagayan de Oro under their inflatable rafts.
Tourists pay from P700 to P1,200 per person for the three- to four-hour ride along the rapids of Cagayan de Oro River. However, insiders said some of the operators would lower their prices to as low as P400 per person during lean months.
Balbin’s death was the first fatal accident since the city became the country’s whitewater rafting capital 15 years ago.
Pabayo said the last time the river guides underwent a similar training was in 2012 but all of them know the course of the river “like the palm of their hands.”
She said well-trained river guides are the key to safety in the Cagayan de Oro River which has rapids and sections that are categorized in the International Scale of River Difficulty as “Class 3 and 4” .
“The guides are the ones who steer the boat away from the dangerous sections or urge the tourists to paddle more to get the raft away from the dangerous section,” she said.
Using the International Scale of River Difficulty, the International Rafting Federation categorized the Cagayan de Oro River as a world class and challenging “recreational outdoor activity.”
Class 3 means a river has rapids with moderate, irregular waves that can swamp inflatable rafts and difficult to avoid. River guides and rafters have to paddle around tight sections of the river.
“It is simply a dangerous extreme adventure tour. This is whitewater adventure at its best,” Jerome Garcia, who also offers rafting tours, said.
Garcia, who pioneered the whitewater adventure in the Cagayan de Oro River said some tourists are not even satisfied with the Class 3 rapids and would demand that the guides flip the rafts “for the sake of adventure and thrills.”
The city council passed Ordinance no. 12029-2011 on June 7, 2011 prohibiting the flipping the rafts and other “dangerous acts of maneuvers” during the tours.
Garcia was blacklisted after his guides were found guilty of flipping their inflatable rafts, but he was able to procure a license to operate his outfitter agency from the neighboring town of Baungon, Bukidnon where the Cagayan de Oro River originates.
Six local outfitters that composed the Oro Association of Rafters (OAR) have recommended “five unified countermeasures” to prevent a repeat of the June 13 rafting accident and ensure the safety of tourists.
The group recommended the following: deployment of an additional guide aboard another kayak in the dangerous sections of the river already identified as “critical points”; reducing the rafting trip from three hours to only an hour as “extra precautionary measure”; adding a “trained” guide who will ride with the tourists in addition to the regular guide which is now being practiced; giving the rafters intensive lectures on handling and paddling techniques; and asking the local government to study the possibility of asking insurance firms to offer insurance to the tourists.
Roldan Kaamino, co-owner of Kagay Journey-White Water Rafting and Kayaking said Balbin and her companions were not covered by any accident insurance.
Kaamino said not one of the six outfitter agencies provide their clients with accident or liability insurance because “the premiums are very expensive.”
No trained rescue unit
Moreno admitted that the rescue of Balbin was hamstrung by lack of trained rescuers capable of diving in the strong currents of the Cagayan de Oro River.
He said the rescue team from the Cagayan de Oro Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (CDRRMO) lacks the necessary equipment to pull a successful operation.
“The problem is that the river guides are the only competent people who can pull a successful rescue operation. If they cannot do it, then who can?” he said.
Working with rescue teams from the Philippine Air Force, Philippine Army, Philippine National Police and the Philippine Coast Guard, the river guides and their inflatable rafts were credited for saving many stranded residents from rooftops during typhoons Sendong and Pablo.
“The rafters are the experts. They know every inch of the river,” Moreno said.
CDRRMO chief Vener Monsanto said it took the Kagay owners over three hours to inform their office that they needed assistance.
Monsanto said his office received the call from Kagay at 4:45 pm last Friday that “one of their guests fell from the raft and was missing.”
He said he immediately deployed a team to Sitio Makahambus, Barangay Bayanga where the accident happened.
“I believed the incident happened at around 1:30 pm. I do not know why it took them more than three hours to make the report,” he said.
The city council passed two ordinances authorizing the six local outfitter agencies that composed OAR to operate whitewater tours.
Ordinance no. 11087-2008 passed on July 28, 2008 authorizes the six outfitter agencies to operate for five years and their permits may be renewed. Ordinance no. 12029-2011 passed on June 7, 2011 prohibits the flipping of rafts and other dangerous maneuvers.
Moreno said the two ordinances “practically” gave the authority to regulate to the six outfitter agencies.
“The role of the City Mayor’s Office was limited to the issuance of a Permit to Operate only. My office does not have a regulatory role over the industry,” he said.
The mayor said Ordinance no. 11087-2008 authorizes the city council to issue franchise permits to outfitter agencies and for the city treasurer’s office to collect franchise taxes and regulatory fees.
Conduct of whitewater tours
Ordinance no. 11087-2008 provides for the Implementing Rules and Regulations in the conduct of whitewater rafting and kayaking activities along the Cagayan de Oro River.
River guides are required to undergo PNRC training on first aid for sportsmen, CPR or basic life support, basic swimming, water safety and rescue, and swift water rescue.
The ordinance also requires that river guides must be at least 18 years old and must have sufficient experience in whitewater rafting with at least “20 supervised solo runs” in the river.
“The guides must put the safety of the clients as priority,” Ordinance no. 11087-2008 stipulates.
The ordinance also provides that outfitters must require their clients to accomplish a medical questionnaire before they may ride the rafts.
The outfitters are required to have a licensed physician at hand to review the questionnaires and the tourists.
Outfitters are warned not to accept clients who have taken alcoholic beverages eight hours before the rafting tour and those who have heart problems, hypertension and other medical problems.
The ordinance provides for fines from P1,000 to P3,000; cancellation of business franchise; and imprisonment of up to six months for the erring river guide and outfitter agency.
Mark Jeoffe of the International Rafting Federation said it was unfortunate that Balbin died while rafting in the Cagayan de Oro River.
“Cagayan de Oro River is a world class river for whitewater rafting. The guides here have solid trainings and experience. It was unfortunate that this accident happened,” Jeoffe said.
“I will still bring the international rafting competition here in October,” added Jeoffe who is in town to check on the facilities for the possible holding of an international rafting competition this October.
OAR is a member of the Internal Rafting Federation. (Froilan Gallardo/MindaNews)