Lake Mead National Recreation Area Offering Free Loaner Life Jackets In Bid To Save Lives

One of the life jacket loaner stations at Lake Mead. NPS photo.

The numbers at Lake Mead National Recreation Area are sobering, but not surprising: The leading cause of unintentional death at the park is drowning and 100 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket ... but only ten percent of swimmers at the lake wear a personal flotation device. The park is trying to improve those odds by offering free loaner life jackets at two popular swim beaches.

Lifejacket loaner stations were placed near the beach areas at Boulder Beach and Cottonwood Cove beginning on Memorial Day Weekend. The stations offer lifejackets in sizes from infant to adult, along with instructions to help visitors choose the right size. Visitors can borrow a lifejacket at no cost to use during the day and return it before they leave.

“What we are trying to do is raise awareness of the risk associated of swimming without a lifejacket and change behavior by providing lifejackets to people who otherwise wouldn’t be using them on the shoreline,” said Chief Ranger Mary Hinson.

A Las Vegas dad felt safer letting his kids swim at Boulder Beach during a recent visit after noticed the park’s new lifejacket loaner station. Henry Villafana’s daughter, Cassandra, 11, and son, Nicholas, 5, had never swum in the lake before. He was planning to have them wear Floaties, until he saw a kiosk filled with lifejackets. “I thought it was a rental station. It’s fabulous,” he said.

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Henry Villafana puts a loaner life jacket on his son Nicholas, age 5. NPS photo.

A recent study of fatality reports, dating back five years, showed that the number one cause of unintentional death at Lake Mead NRA was drowning. This prompted a study to observe and record lifejacket use at the park, and student volunteers from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Veterans Tribute Career and Technical Academy were trained in risk management and data collection. They recorded lifejacket use by visitors on boats, personal watercraft and on the shoreline.

The results showed that only ten percent of all swimmers observed at Lake Mead NRA wore a traditional personal flotation device.

A park spokesperson notes, "Visitors who don’t wear lifejackets can unexpectedly find themselves in life threatening situations while swimming in the lakes. In 2012 and 2013, 100 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a lifejacket. Earlier this year, two women using pool toys at Boulder Beach were swept away by the wind and unable to swim back to shore. Ranger Stephen Neel was notified of their situation and rescued them by boat."

“We have to bring awareness of the importance of wearing a lifejacket. People think they don’t need a lifejacket when they swim at Lake Mead. We want to change that thought process,” said Neel. Now, when Neel patrols Boulder Beach, he said he sees people using the loaner lifejackets. “The station is emptied out when people are at the beach,” he said.

Lifejacket loaner stations were designed for shoreline use because existing laws require boaters to have a minimum of one U.S. Coast Guard approved lifejacket for each person on board their vessel. Children 12 years and younger are required to wear lifejackets while boating.

“Our goal is to get everybody; kids, adults, teenagers, to wear their lifejackets while recreating in or near the water at Lake Mead,” said Park Ranger Autumn Paulson, who helped coordinate the lifejacket study. The study of lifejacket use at Lake Mead NRA continues this summer. Volunteers are also gathering data on visitor interactions with the lifejacket loaner stations. Data will be collected through Labor Day weekend and results should be available in November.

“We want zero fatalities out at the lake, and we know that a properly fitted lifejacket can be the difference between life and death,” said Paulson.