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Life jackets boat

The long Labor Day Weekend is an opportunity for many western Montanans to get out on the water and enjoy the final days of summer. As families gear up for boating outings, it is important to keep safety a priority. Hundreds, if not thousands, of boating accidents each year could be avoided if both parents and kids knew how to be water-wise, starting with the use of a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 5,000 children ages 14 and under are hospitalized annually due to near drownings. Among children and adults, nearly 4,000 fatal unintentional drownings occur each year and more than 330 of those drownings are due to boating-related incidents.

The use of a properly fitted life jacket is crucial for all swimmers to be safe while recreating, and it is especially important for everyone to wear a life jacket when boating. This includes adults who are recreating with or supervising children, as an adult wearing a life jacket is better equipped to help a child in danger.

For those who do not have or cannot afford a life jacket, the Missoula Family YMCA is equipped to check out life jackets free of charge through Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Life Jacket Loaner Program. The YMCA loaner site has infant through adult sizes available. To properly fit a life jacket, hold your arms straight up over your head and ask a friend to grasp the tops of the arm openings and gently pull up. Make sure there is no excess room above the openings and that the jacket does not ride up over your chin or face.

When recreating near or on water, it is also important to:

• Make sure an adult is constantly supervising children playing in or around water. Have children playing near water wear life jackets, as there may be steep drop-offs or other hidden hazards.

• Recognize that even if a child knows how to swim, they are not “drown-proof.” Swimming in natural bodies of water is much different than swimming in a pool, and a child who falls into water unexpectedly may panic and forget learned swimming skills.

• Always swim with a buddy. Never swim alone or unsupervised.

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• Know the local weather conditions and forecast before swimming or boating. Strong winds and thunderstorms with lightning strikes are dangerous to swimmers and boaters.

• Air-filled or foam toys, such as water-wings, noodles or inner-tubes, are not substitutes for life jackets. These are toys and are not designed to keep swimmers safe.

• When boating, children under 12 years of age must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket and it is recommended that everyone on the boat wear a life jacket.

• Never dive head-first into water and recognize the dangers of jumping from cliffs or bridges, such as shallow water, and submerged rocks, trees or other hazards.

• Never drink alcohol before or while swimming, boating or supervising children on or near water. A large portion of boating accidents each year involve alcohol consumption.

• Learn basic water rescue skills and CPR. It is important to know how to respond in an emergency without putting yourself at risk of drowning.

Wearing a life jacket and making safety a priority can be the difference between a fun, family outing and a potentially dangerous or deadly situation. Make sure you and your family remember to be water-wise this Labor Day weekend.

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This opinion is signed by the Safe Kids Missoula Water Safety Workgroup: Rose Kahane, Missoula Family YMCA; Hannah Shepherd, Missoula Parks and Recreation; Sara Smith, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Kaci Briggeman, Montana Infant Swim; and Tonya Kiser, UM Grizzly Pool.

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