With the Memorial Day holiday considered the unofficial kickoff to summer and boating season, some of Nashville’s emergency rescue agencies used Percy Priest Lake as a backdrop last week to talk summer safety and stress the importance of life jacket use for water enthusiasts.

Representatives from the Nashville Fire Department, Office of Emergency Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brought displays and held their talk summer safety event June 4 on the water’s edge at Percy Priest Lake Park in Hermitage.

Surrounded by OEM Marine One rescue boat moored on the lakeshore, water rescue K-9s playing in the water, emergency rescue vehicles and a Medic 28 ambulance with a gurney displayed in the parking lot, representatives from the local agencies spoke about water safety when out on the area lakes and rivers.

A lot of emphasis was also placed on reminding the public to wear a personal floating device or life jacket and ensure they are worn properly anytime while participating in water activities.

“Wear it Tennessee. A life jacket is the only thing that’s going to save you if you hit the water, especially if you don’t know how to swim, or if you’re in a boating accident and knocked unconscious,” said OEM special operations manager Mike Russell. “This is your only means of protection. So, it’s so critical to wear your life jacket when you’re out here on the water,” he said.

As reported, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency had a noticeable increase in boating traffic during the past year and a boom in the use of paddle craft, such as kayaks and paddleboards throughout the state. PFDs are also a requirement for use by people on kayaks and stand up paddle craft.

During the 2020 holiday weekend, there was one boating-related death in the state, which happened in an incident below Fort Loudoun Dam near Knoxville. According to the TWRA, the death was one of 32 in Tennessee during 2020, the most in 37 years, which came on the heels of a record-low eight boating deaths in 2019. There were 10 deaths statewide so far this year.

OEM officials said there were four drowning deaths in Davidson County last year, and two of those happened in May alone. This year, there was one drowning death so far, and the victim was not wearing a life jacket.

“We average five to seven drownings a year here in Davidson County out on the water,” said Russell.

Statistics show that men 18-34 years old are less likely to wear life jackets.

“One of the things we stress, and we’ve talked about it already several times today, is the proper use of personal flotation devices or life jackets. Life jackets are just like seat belts; they only work when worn. I can’t stress that enough,” said OEM Emergency Support Unit Maj. David Crane.

“If you’re going to be on the waters, be boating responsibly and make sure that life jacket is being worn.”

Crane is a dive team leader and instructor and conducted water recoveries in this area since 1991. And in all those years, he said, “I have never recovered a drowning victim who was wearing a life jacket.”

OEM conducted safety patrols on area lakes over Memorial Day weekend and plans to do the same during the July 4 and Labor Day holiday weekends.

Russell said the people on the water complain about wearing a life jacket because “they’re hot and bulky. I was a rescue swimmer before I got old, and I still wear a life jacket even when I’m just sitting still in the water fishing.”

He explained when somebody drowns, “You generally don’t see the person like you see on TV, waving their arms and hollering for help.”

Russell said victims not wearing a life jacket “generally just go straight down, and they don’t resurface. They dive in, and you never see them again. You don’t see the TV stuff. That’s why a lot of times people don’t realize they drown. Even in swimming pools, they don’t realize because there’s no distress signal really being given out.”

Russell and Crane displayed a pile of approved PFDs. Life jackets come in an array of sizes for all ages and in a variety of comfort levels. There are some with zippers, buckles, collars, easy to pull over the neck, with pockets or no pockets and some lightweight with a pull cord to inflate them as needed. On average, they said a good life jacket costs about $40.

Holding up a children’s pink and green inflatable ring pool toy, Russell said, “These are not life safety devices; these are toys. I wouldn’t recommend it if the kid went out on the lake unless they had a regular PFD on. These are made for swimming pools, but they will not save your life, and they will deflate very quickly.”

He then held up a couple of approved life jackets for children. A small, yellow jacket wraps around the torso and buckles in front, while another one he demonstrated just spread apart and slips around the neck area and lays down across the chest.

“The good thing about this one is that it has a neck collar and will keep their head out of the water and keep them on their back. It’s a pretty good little device, and it’s fairly inexpensive,” said Russell.

Legitimate lifesaving vests will have “U.S. Coast Guard approved printed on the inside,” said Russell. “They come with a flyer to tell you how to properly use the life jacket. If it’s not zipped up, or if it’s not buckled, it’s not going to work,” he said.

“We had a drowning last year. The person was riding around in a jet ski wearing his PFD but did not have it zipped up, and when he hit the water, it fell off. And he drowned. Always use it properly the way it’s designed to be used.”

A couple of water-sniffing rescue dogs were on display and proudly wore their life vests. Piper, a 6-year-old black shepherd, and JoJo, an 11-year-old brown shepherd, were playing fetch in the lake. K-9s help find drowning victims in the water more quickly than using boat passes. Once they are able to narrow down and get a search area, that’s when a dive operation would begin.

“Life jackets are important for anybody, whether it’s a human or an animal, because, as you can tell, the waters are not clear here. So even just a moment underneath the water, you can’t see your friend or your dog to grab them and pull them back up,” said OEM Sgt. Dr. Melissa Riley.

“Just one breath of water can cause them to go underwater and drown. We ask everyone to stay safe. It may not be as comfortable as without one, but it’s definitely worth it in the long run,” said Riley.

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