American Whitewater is all about open-source, river information sharing. This is the motivation and rationale behind American Whitewater’s recently released Open-source Signage Toolbox. The first of its kind in the river community, the Toolbox houses a database of templates for safety messaging regarding life jackets, caution messaging, river kiosk information, map content and river rapid classification info.

Several yellow triangular signs with different safety symbols on them.
Photo: Courtesy of American Whitewater

American Whitewater has taken on the challenge of streamlining universal whitewater and river signage. Think of the Toolbox as conveniently usable excerpts and content from a universal river sign guidebook. In the same way ski resorts have cultivated unified symbols, signage and color coding standards for downhill difficulty ratings (i.e. black diamond, green and blue, etc.), American Whitewater has curated universal signage for relaying important river safety information in the form of the Open-source Signage Toolbox.

Trail map sign at a trailhead.
Photo: Courtesy of American Whitewater

And who better to oversee the production of the first universal whitewater signage Toolbox than American Whitewater? American Whitewater has been recognized as the expert in whitewater and river safety for over 60 years and has been looked at to provide input and guidance on safety messaging for signage at river access points across the country. In contributing to countless signage projects throughout scores of years, American Whitewater noticed a need for more consistent messaging and improved accessibility to a range of river managers and users.

Comprehensive by design, the 83-page Toolbox indicates best practices for symbol and text combinations, color, graphic and spacing standards on panel imagery, acceptable pictograms and preferred dimensions of physical signs and posts, as well as proximal placement to access location. The Toolbox brings together the diverse input of over 200 river industry community members to the editing process.

The annual death toll on America’s whitewater rivers is filled with the names of people who were looking for a fun day on the water and blundered into a dangerous situation. American Whitewater’s Safety Signage Project is designed to alert people to downstream dangers and suggest simple safety practices. The Open-source Signage Toolbox will make it easier for river managers, landowners, and others to get the word out.”  American Whitewater safety chairman, Charlie Walbridge

American Whitewater communications director, Evan Stafford said, “The years of river safety experience that went into American Whitewater’s Safety Signage Project is hard to even put a number to, but suffice it to say it should be counted in centuries. Everyone from public lands agency river managers who’ve been working to educate river users for decades, to swiftwater rescue instructors who’ve been teaching courses for generations gave their input. The end result is a comprehensive, open-source toolkit, that will push river signage to be the most informative it can be, while maintaining consistent messaging that can be recognized across jurisdictions and from watershed to watershed.”

Little boy on a paddleboard.
Photo: Courtesy of American Whitewater

American Whitewater’s ultimate goal in the Open-source Signage Toolbox initiative is to reduce boating fatalities and accidents under the premise that more effective information at river access points will result in a greater percentage of individuals engaged in safe boating practices.

“As a professional rescuer and firefighter I know the nexus between information and prevention. With information people can make an informed decision about where and how they want to recreate on the river. That critical information will lead to safer experiences for people and help to prevent accidents in the river environment,” noted Sean Norman, team leader of the Water Rescue Team for Cal Fire in Butte County.

Mom and daughter in a whitewater canoe
Photo: Courtesy of American Whitewater

By building an Open-source Signage Toolbox that supplies designers and river managers with coherent signage elements and other visual assets with consistent messaging, iconography and graphic elements, American Whitewater helps improve river safety and standardize resources and materials used at river recreation sites. Supported by research and industry expertise, the Open-source Signage Toolbox has been developed to create a comprehensive signature and graphic program that will improve communication, safety and awareness. Specifically, this toolbox was developed to prevent, protect and improve the following:

Prevent deaths, emergencies, land-owner conflicts, harm to river and wildlife, and the environment, unlawful and unsafe behavior at the access sites and mistreatment of the river/sites. Protect lives, natural resources, rivers and the environment. And finally, improve communication, connectivity, safety, recreation experience, education, site infrastructure, river health and stewardship, dams, portage routes and hydraulics, equipment details, general river use and guidelines.

American Whitewater will evaluate the effectiveness of the project through outreach to state and federal agencies, dam operators, and other river managers who are responsible for providing recreational boaters with safety information. American Whitewater will work collaboratively with river managers and state boating law administrators to identify opportunities to install improved signage and evaluate effectiveness through actions of the public.

The Toolbox was developed over the course of one year in partnership with Tangram Design under a grant from Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, administered by the U.S. Coast Guard. The original concepts for the project emerged from an effort by Snohomish County, WA to develop safety messages for communities along the Skykomish River.

Keep an eye out for an AW journal article and more press on the Open-Source Signage Toolbox. For more information, reach out to the American Whitewater Pacific Northwest Stewardship director, Thomas O’Keefe, 425-417-9012, [email protected].


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