The ever-expanding technology of the 21st century has given boaters more sense of safety than ever before. Global positioning systems are now inexpensive and readily available. Boats are stronger, better made and sport more reliable engines.
But the one thing that will most easily save your life on the water is an old idea - the life jacket or PFD. Now in this case, a PFD is not our annual windfall from the state, but a personal flotation device.
Compared to other states, Alaska ranks near or at the bottom in boater fatalities. Many people attribute the high fatality and drowning rates to the frigid ocean waters, however, the Coast Guard claims that most of these deaths could have been prevented with the use of a simple PFD.
"Without a doubt, over half of the fatalities are people who didn't wear PFDs," Juneau District Coast Guard Assistant Boating Safety Coordinator Mike Swanson said.
Some of the most disturbing data shows the drowning fatality rate for Alaskans under the age of 20 is more than twice the national average. In fact, drowning is the second-leading cause of death among children in the state.
One program aims to change this trend and hopefully start kids off early on a good habit of wearing life jackets. In cooperation with the Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Alaska Injury Prevention Unit, the "Kids Don't Float" program aspires to get kids to wear PFDs.
Homer resident Bob Painter started "Kids Don't Float" in the spring of 1996. He was the assistant fire chief of the Homer Fire Department at the time and set up the first 15 life jacket boards at the harbors around the Kachemak Bay. Since then, the program has expanded to more than 300 sites by lakes, rivers and bays around the state in nearly every region.
"They are using them," said Alaska Injury Prevention Unit Manager Martha Moore. "We"re constantly filling orders for more life jackets. People tell us that they do see kids wearing them."
State law mandates that anyone 13 years and younger wear a PFD at all times while on the water. Studies show that the wear rate of PFDs more than doubled shortly after the "Kids Don't Float" program was put in place.
The life jackets are purchased with grant money received partly through the federal Centers for Disease Control and Injury Prevention and the PFDS are intended to be borrowed, but many of them do disappear. However, Moore says disappearing life jackets means people are using them.
"We're trying to prevent people from drowning," Moore said. "As long as they're using them. What else could they be doing with them?"
Studies are underway to measure the success of the program, but Moore says it's hard to say how many lives the program has saved.
"It's always hard to measure a negative, like not drowning," Moore said. "But we're doing observation studies."
The "Kids Don't Float" program has been given some national recognition, most notably, it was accepted by the National Safe Kids Campaign as a national program.
So, take notice of the boards at our local harbors. Return those PFDs you borrowed and hopefully you will in turn be a small part of saving someone's life. And wear your own PFD and most assuredly, you will be a big part of saving your own life.
Jeff Kasper is a freelance writer and former Empire sportswriter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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