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Life preserver

Students get lesson on importance of water safety

By Sam Pierce

This article was published July 9, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.

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Brian Westfall, a natural-resource specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, gives a water-safety demonstration at Hot Springs Lakeside Intermediate School on June 30. Westfall stressed the importance of always wearing a proper lifejacket when in or around water.

The No. 1 defense against drowning this summer is to always wear a life jacket, said Brian Westfall, a natural-resource specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Make sure [the life jacket] fits, make sure it is lifeguard-approved, and make sure it is in good shape,” Westfall said.

Westfall spent June 30 at Hot Springs Lakeside Intermediate School giving presentations to various classes about the importance of water safety.

In his seminar, Westfall reminded a group of fourth-graders that water toys are not lifesavers and to always swim in a designated swimming area.

“[On June 23] in Temple, Texas, a family was swimming near a house boat at the docks,” Westfall told the students. “A 4-year-old girl was swimming too close to the propellers, and when the driver started the boat up — despite numerous attempts [by onlookers] to warn him — the girl got caught in the blades and later died from injuries sustained in the accident.

Her father jumped in to try to save her, and he lost both of his legs, which were cut off at the knee by the propellers, Westfall said.

According to KXXV-TV in Texas, the boat driver was arrested and charged with criminal negligent homicide.

“It is very dangerous. That is why it is important to swim in designated areas only,” Westfall warned. “That family’s life is changed forever.”

Westfall has worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for 35 years and plans to retire in 18 months. But he said he still plans to educate people on the importance of water safety.

“One death is too many,” Westfall said. “Ten million people will visit our lakes this summer, and we want them all to return home safely.

“We want to be as educated as possible. I am always looking for new and creative ways to inform people.”

The Corps is incorporating a new motto this month: “Life Jackets Worn … Nobody Mourns.”

“More public recreation fatalities occur in July than any other month, so the [Corps] asks you to please play it safe while on, in or near the water because drowning is a leading cause of death this time of year,” the release states.

It also said that in 89 percent of those deaths, the people were not wearing life jackets.

“Most people who drown would have survived if they had worn a life jacket,” Westfall said.

During the class, Westfall told the kids about an easy saying when it comes to water safety: “Reach, throw, row, never go.”

Westfall said it only takes about 20 to 60 seconds for someone to drown, and while the natural reaction is to jump in and try to save that person, it could only make matters worse.

“A drowning person is a panicked person, and they may take you down with them,” Westfall said. “Use an oar to reach them, or throw them a life jacket, or try to row to them. Never go after them [by jumping into the water].”

The same advice applies to not going after toys, such as beach balls, or other personal items.

“A 99-cent beach ball is not worth your life,” Westfall told the students.

Besides wearing a life jacket, one of the best defenses against drowning is knowing how to swim, Westfall said.

“Swimming ability decreases with age, so even if you are a strong swimmer, wear your life jacket, especially in open-water conditions,” he said.

Just as it is important to never drink and drive on the road, having a designated “Harbor Hero” on the boat who is not drinking decreases the risk of accidents, Westfall said.

Operation Dry Water, which was initiated in 2009, stresses the importance of remaining safe and sober on the water.

The mission of Operation Dry Water is to reduce the number of alcohol- and drug-related accidents and fatalities through increased boater awareness and by “fostering a stronger and more visible deterrent to alcohol use on the water,” Westfall said.

He said the heightened enforcement during the July Fourth weekend allows officers to remove impaired boat operators from the water.

“Since the launch of Operation Dry Water in 2009, the number of boating fatalities with alcohol named as a contributing factor has decreased 24 percent in the United States,” according to the website www.operationaldrywater.com. “However, alcohol use continues to be the leading known factor in recreational boating deaths.”

For those who like to use canoes or other nonmotorized boats, the Coast Guard recommends the following should be considered every time before going out on the water:

• Always wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket.

• Make yourself be seen by wearing bright/contrasting clothing.

• Carry a sound-producing device such as a whistle.

• Carry a DCS-VHF radio.

• Know your paddling limits.

• Know the area where you will be operating.

• Avoid paddling in main channels of busy waterways when possible.

• Dress appropriately for the water temperature and the forecast weather.

• Don’t paddle alone.

• Tell a friend where you are going and when you will return. File a float plan.

• Don’t drink alcohol and operate a boat or paddle craft.

Westfall, who oversees Lake Ouachita, DeGray Lake and Lake Greeson, said he enjoys giving these seminars because he finds it very rewarding to help people.

“We want you to have fun on the water,” he said, “but we also want you to be safe and go back to your family.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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