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Water safety program lends free life jackets

Melanie Buhs of Cloquet checks out loaner life jackets in a “Flotation Station” at Dunlap Island in Cloquet. Essentia Health has teamed up with Safe Kids Northeastern Minnesota and other community partners to put the free loaner life jackets at six boat landings in St. Louis and Carlton counties. Melanie’s mother, Sarah Buhs, serves on Safe Kids Northeastern Minnesota. Derek Montgomery / Derek Montgomery

It’s simple: Life jackets save lives.

Drowning consistently ranks among the top causes of accidental death for children, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. And most boating deaths occur because people are not wearing life jackets.

That’s why Essentia Health has teamed up with Safe Kids of Northeastern Minnesota to loan life jackets at six popular boat launches in St. Louis and Carlton counties. Each “Flotation Station” holds 20 life jackets in adult and children’s sizes that can be borrowed free of charge for a day or weekend. Anyone can borrow a life jacket while boating, paddling or swimming and then simply return it to the loaner station.

“Our goal is to increase the use of life jackets and to educate people on the importance of wearing a proper fitting life jacket,” says Allison Nicolson, Essentia Health’s injury prevention coordinator who also coordinates the local Safe Kids coalition. “A life jacket loaner program just makes good sense for preventing injuries and deaths in the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes.’”

Now in its second summer, the program has expanded from four to six locations. Loaner stations can be found at boat launches at Dunlap Island in Cloquet, Fish Lake Dam, Island Lake’s Abbott Road landing, Island Lake’s Hideaway landing, the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center and the Big Lake landing. The landings were chosen because they are popular areas and because the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issues a high number of life jacket violations there, Nicolson explains.

Minnesota law requires all children under age 10 to wear a life jacket on any boat or watercraft that’s not docked. It also requires one U.S. Coast Guard-approved, properly sized and easily accessible life jacket for each person on a boat. Life jackets also are recommended for children who are on docks or shorelines.

Each “Flotation Station” has life jackets in four adult sizes; four for ages 10-18; five for ages 5-10; and seven for ages 5 and under. The life jackets are available from the Minnesota fishing opener, which is May 11, through mid-September.

Nicolson says each life jacket has a tag that helps adults choose the right one for a child. A proper fit helps ensure that a child doesn’t slip out while swimming or in the event of an accident, Nicolson explains.

“We need to remember to watch kids when they are in or around water and not become distracted,” Nicolson says. “It’s a myth that someone who is in danger in water will yell for help and make a fuss that we can hear. Most drownings are silent and can happen in water as shallow as a few inches for little ones.”

The Minnesota Safety Council says more than 1 in 5 drowning victims are children age 14 and younger. And for every child who dies, another four receive emergency department care for submersion injuries.

Since 2001, the Trauma Program at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth has treated 47 children under age 18 for water-related injuries or drownings, Nicolson says. Of those children, 18 were injured on lakes and nine children died.

“Wearing a life jacket should be like wearing a seat belt or using a car seat in a vehicle,” Nicolson says. “It’s another way we can keep our kids safe and prevent injuries.”

Safe Kids Northeast Minnesota modeled its life jacket loaner program on one offered by the BoatUS Foundation. Essentia Health donated money to purchase life jackets for the project that’s a partnership with the Duluth-Superior EcoRotary, Minnesota Power and Carpenters Union Local 361. The Duluth Kiwanis recently joined as a “Flotation Station” sponsor.