Thursday, August 18, 2011

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Life Jacket Policy Test: More wear? More lives saved.

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council magazine by Ms. Lynda Nutt, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Manager, National Operations Center for Water Safety

Despite the national reductions in recreational boating-related casualties following the Federal Boating Safety Act of 1971, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) recreation managers struggled to minimize serious injuries and fatalities occurring on their waters throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

By 1985, the corps was using aggressive water safety educational campaigns and key visitor assistance initiatives led by park rangers in local communities, parks, and on the water to warn the public of open water recreation risks and encourage safer behaviors. While all these efforts had a dramatic effect on reducing the numbers of fatalities, they still averaged 170 each year.

In 2007, USACE Maj. Gen. Donald T. Riley tasked personnel to conduct a policy test to measure the effect of adopting a mandatory life jacket policy. In 2008, USACE moved out with its policy test in the Pittsburgh and Vicksburg Districts.

Vicksburg Findings Impressive
Vicksburg officials reported that the initial public reaction to the life jacket policy was mixed. However, rangers were able to gain significant compliance without having to issue one citation over the course of the recreational summer.

Observation data supported that a cumulative wear rate of nearly 71 percent on the Vicksburg test waters. Comparatively, nearby “control” lakes, where policy wasn’t introduced, were still showing only six percent wear rates.

Pittsburgh Results Disappoint
Since 1990, Pittsburgh District policy mandated that life jackets be worn by all non-swimmers and occupants of vessels under 16 feet. Unfortunately by the end of the “test” recreation season, it had achieved only a 3.7 percent cumulative wear rate on the test lakes in this region, while nearby control lakes in Ohio showed wear rates of more than seven percent.

Clearly, the policy had become stale after nearly two decades with no new emphasis on promotion or enforcement. The policy was also limited in scope, applying only to craft less than 16 feet, while the majority of boats on these test lakes were greater in size. It was also noted that Ohio boating safety officials were engaged to a much greater degree in the National Safe Boating Council’s “Wear It!” campaign to encourage voluntary life jacket wear.

Future Efforts
USACE officials have documented four lives saved on the Mississippi lakes specifically tied to the policies implemented during the first test season.

“These victims stated that they would not have worn a life jacket if it hadn’t been for the policy,” said Michael Ensch, chief of the USACE Operations Division. “In each case, the situations were challenging enough that survival without the life jacket was questionable.”

The USACE will continue the tests in the Pittsburgh and Vicksburg Districts and will evaluate data collection in monitoring wear rates. In addition, impact on staffing/budget requirements and capabilities, and public, stakeholder, and congressional reactions will also be monitored and evaluated. All findings will be forwarded to USACE leadership for action.

Full article is available at

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