Water safety in the classroom and on the road

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A commentary by Amber Tilton, The Dalles Lock and Dam

Successful water safety outreach has to start with engaging the audience. With increasing emphasis on water safety in the past several years, I wanted to do something different, something dynamic.

131118-A-GJ792-001So in September 2010, I began a water safety poster contest at The Dalles Middle School. A poster contest wasn’t something I’d done before, so I gathered ideas through a community of practice called the Corps’ Ranger Network and explored the Interpretive Exchange Toolbox on the Natural Resource Management Gateway Website.

I decided to target sixth grade students so I contacted the local middle school’s principal and health teachers to see if they would participate. I also reached out to Safe Kids Columbia Gorge, a committee I’ve been part of since 2010. They offered to donate the prizes for the contest (life jackets) and the brown paper grocery bags for the kids to make their posters on.

I developed a basic plan for the annual contest: park rangers teach water safety programs to 6th grade health students throughout the school year, kids create a poster based on something they learned about water safety with winners announced at an end-of-year assembly. The ranger staff picks the best posters based on originality, creativity and the clarity of the water safety message. Afterwards, the remaining posters were printed onto grocery bags that are donated to the local farmer’s market and food bank to spread the water safety message out to the community at large.

Not content to rest on these successes, my supervisor challenged me: How do we build upon the poster contest to make it bigger than students learning about water safety and their posters circulating through the community?

In response, I developed the idea to have the artwork for the winning, best-in-contest poster be transformed into an outdoor highway billboard. I contacted our local billboard company, Meadow Outdoors, who was happy to partner with us in this public safety campaign!

So here we are, four years after the first poster contest with water safety billboards designed by young artists from the local middle school and Meadows Outdoors as a new partner in water safety.

We have reached our kids, and they’ve spread the message throughout the community with their posters. Now we are also sharing their messages with all who drive by our little town: Life Jackets Save Lives!

Visit http://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/About/WaterSafety.aspx for more about the Corps’ Water Safety Program or information about how to hold a water safety poster contest in your community.

140701-A-GJ792-003What does it take to prepare for a poster contest?

You simply cannot just decide to show up one day at a school, drop a safety campaign and dash off. You have got to establish a rapport with schools and students to set the stage for a successful water safety outreach. Some key messages can require multiple visits to “sink in” for students, and you have to plan ahead to get time in a busy school schedule.

Here at The Dalles, there are four semesters in a school year, so rangers have at least that many classroom programs and sometimes more if there are multiple health teachers. While class sizes vary, there are usually 25-30 students.

We don’t just toss kids into the “deep end” with water safety—we teach them the following programs:

Cold Water Immersion is taught to 6th grade and is about how cold water affects the body.

  • Starts with a 15-minute video, “Cold Water Boot Camp”, which discusses cold shock, cold incapacitation and hypothermia.
  • Followed by a discussion of safety do’s and don’ts, how to properly fit a life jacket, how to recognize/help a drowning person.
  • Activity: Life jacket fashion show and throw rope/throw cushion toss.
  • The program ends with a chilling game of Cold Hand Luke. Even simple tasks are so much harder when your hands are cold!

Fatal Vision is taught to the 7th and 8th graders:

  • “Fatal Vision,” covers the effects of alcohol while boating/recreating and focuses on situational awareness–“just because you’re being safe on the water doesn’t mean others are … so be aware of your surroundings.”
  • Starts with a 15-minute video, “Almost A Perfect Day: Living With The Environmental Stressors,” describing how environmental stressors (wind, glare, noise, dehydration and the vibration of the boat) combined with alcohol – impacts the body, causing fatigue and impairing judgment.
  • Activity: Students wear ‘drunk goggles’ and try to do common tasks. After struggling to walk a straight line, trying to toss a basketball into a basket and writing on the chalkboard, students see how alcohol use overcomplicates the simplest tasks.
  • Followed by a discussion on how impaired judgment leads to higher risk-taking—which can have deadly consequences.

The quality of the discussion can vary greatly between students who are hearing this information for the first time and those who have been exposed to water safety over several years. When it comes to reaching students at a grass-roots level, sometimes you need to plant the seeds early on; once the message takes root, the yield can be tremendous. These kids have a lot of recreational experiences and they are conscious of what’s going on around them. When you help them express themselves through a creative outlet like a poster contest and get them excited about giving back to their community through their artwork, you have a chance to see some really amazing results!

In 2013, the poster contest was expanded to include 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. The middle school was visited each semester with three programs given per visit. Some kids opt out of participating in the contest, resulting in a higher number of direct water safety contacts versus poster submittals. Even so, we had:

  • 163 poster entries in 2010
  • 115 poster entries in 2011
  • 146 poster entries in 2012
  • 230 poster entries in 2013