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Posted 6/30/2013

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By Eileen Williamson, Public Affairs Specialist
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District

It is a common misperception that firefighters merely fight fires. Actual firefighting takes up only a small percentage of the time firefighters spend on duty. Another important part of their time is spent educating others about fire prevention and fire safety.

This concept rings true for the park rangers and natural resource specialists at lakes areas across the Omaha District who include outreach and water safety education among their regular responsibilities.

“It’s a lot of work, but we believe it is an important part of our job,” said James Lindley, a park ranger at Fort Randall Dam near Pickstown, S.D. “The worst part of the job is when we do recovery missions. With teaching water safety, you hope you are preventing accidents. We educate to prevent drowning but the story about how water safety training or how a life jacket prevented a drowning doesn’t always get told.”

“Education is important,” said Karla Zeutenhorst, a park ranger at Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D. “Life jackets reduce the risk of drowning. When potentially half of all boating deaths might be prevented with the use of life jackets, we know each opportunity to share that message is possibly a life saved and education is how we share that message.”

Education and Outreach

The Omaha District Water Safety program works with more than 30 Federal, state and local agencies as well as nonprofit organizations and schools to promote water safety in six states. Each year, park rangers and natural resource specialists participate in more than 40 events to promote water safety

for children and adults. Children are reached by incorporating the Corps mascots, Bobber the Water Safety Dog and Seamoor the Sea Serpent, in events such as field trips to recreation areas, visits to schools, preschools, youth organizations and attending multi-agency events such as family fishing nights. Omaha District Project Offices also sponsor “miniboats” where, after a lesson on sizing the correct life jacket, hypothermia and boating safety from the Corps and partner agencies, students get to take small electric boats through an obstacle course on the water. Students also learn ”Reach, Throw, Don’t go” hands-on rescue techniques using recycled milk jugs.

Water safety education for adults is just as important, nearly 80 percent of people who die from drowning are adult males ages 18-55. Outreach to this group takes place through public service announcements, boat and travel shows, billboards and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

“We are currently focusing our message to this adult male population through our ‘One drowning is too many’ campaign,” said Jolene Hulsing, a natural resource specialist for the Omaha District. “We have to get boaters past the stigma that life jackets are uncool, unnecessary and optional. One death, one accident, one unworn life jacket is too many, no matter the age.”


As budgets tighten, Corps recreation areas remain focused on an accident-free environment. Partnerships have allowed the Corps to broaden its efforts to promote water safety. 

One such partnership is with the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation to promote water safety within the Omaha District including Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska. The Collingsworth Foundation, was formed to promote water safety and drowning prevention through for children and adults. The foundation’s widely recognized mascot, Josh the Otter, has made appearances alongside Corps’ mascot Bobber the Water Safety Dog.

Another regional partnership is with Bass Pro Shops. As part of the Water Safety partnership, Omaha District Park Rangers from Tri-Lakes Project near Denver, Colo., and the Missouri River Project near Council Bluffs, Iowa, hosted “Wear it Right” and “Safe Passage” seminars during Bass Pro Shops’ Annual Go Outdoors event during National Safe Boating Week from May 18 to 24.

The “Wear it Right” seminar taught participants the five important steps for choosing and fitting a life jacket. Children and families learned, during the “Safe Passage” seminar, to play it safe and to never go in or around water without an adult.

Taking the Message Home

Like firefighters, the Corps focuses efforts on prevention - teaching kids about water safety and hoping they take it home. 

The biggest challenge is getting the message to the parents. “One of the things that is toughest to see as a park ranger is the family that is out on a boat and has taken the time to put the kids in life vests but none of the adults is wearing one,” said Bob Martin, a park ranger at Pipestem Dam in North Dakota. “Just like when you get in the car, you put your child in the safety seat, are you putting on your seatbelt? We want these safety measures to become second nature.”

All these activities are fun, have the goal of promoting water safety but they are also aimed at avoiding the worst part of the job. 

The opportunity to provide water safety education isn’t limited to park rangers or recreation area personnel. The District water safety team has created teaching kits that will allow district employees to volunteer their time to speak to organizations and their children’s classrooms and local organizations about water safety.