Striving to provide extra “life insurance” for people enjoying Lake Allatoona’s cool water and refreshing breezes, Chris Day is helping extend the life jacket loaner service in the midst of COVID-19.
“Life on the lake is meant to be relaxing and fun,” said Day, owner/operator and captain of TowBoatU.S. Lake Allatoona. “With Lake Allatoona averaging about five drownings a year, that’s five too many.
“You can have a great time boating and swimming in the lake, and you can do it safely by wearing a personal floatation device, not swimming alone and maintaining a level of personal accountability for yourself and others while out on the lake.”
While the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ Life Jacket Loaner Program, which consists of more than 20 stations, was temporarily halted due to COVID-19 concerns, a separate effort primarily managed by the Safe Kids’ Bartow Coalition is keeping theirs afloat with Day’s help.
“We are fortunate to have the Corps of Engineers, The BoatUS Foundation, Bartow County, MetroAtlanta Ambulance Service, EMS Superstore, Holiday Harbor Marina, Big Shanty Bassmasters, Ahoy Marine, Emerson, Cartersville, Adairsville, White and other agencies all coming together through the Safe Kids’ Bartow Coalition with ideas and to help identify areas we can improve that will keep Bartow County a safe place to work, live, raise a family and play on the lake,” Day said. “At the end of the day, it takes everyone to do the right thing, following the safe boating rules, wear a personal flotation jacket and keep an eye out for others on and in the water. We hope this holiday weekend is accident/injury free and everyone has a great time celebrating on the water.”
With two of Day’s employees dedicated to this effort, loaner stations at Bartow County Fire Station 4 at 5309 Groovers Landing Road in Acworth, BCFD Station 13 at 293 Wilderness Camp Road in White, Red Top Mountain boat ramp, Allatoona Landing and Holiday Harbor Marina already are operational. The loaner sites at Clark Creek boat ramp, Gatewood park boat ramp, Little River Marina will open at the close of this week.
“We are able to provide two dedicated personnel to disinfect the life vests properly per USCG recommended standards,” Day said. “We have done extensive training with both of our employees on how to properly disinfect the life vests. That is how we are able to still keep our life jacket loaner stations open.
“I am very passionate about life jackets for one simple reason — life jackets save lives. Every time we respond to assist with a missing person or hear of a drowning, it keeps me up at night trying to figure out other ways to make people more aware. A life jacket is the cheapest life insurance you can have on the water.”
In 2019, Day responded to various emergency calls, including a personal water craft being saturated with water after a rock punctured the vessel. Seeing firsthand the life-saving impact of personal floatation devices, he feels passionate about boaters and paddlers having access to life jackets.
“Last year, one of our captains pulled up on two kayakers that had flipped their kayak under Bethany Bridge, neither had a life vest on nor did they have one with them,” Day said. “Our captain was able to put both of them in our boat. While talking to them on the way to the dock, one of the young ladies said, ‘I maybe could have lasted 2 more minutes treading water.’
“Lake Allatoona had a drowning a few weeks ago that could have been 100% prevented with a $15 life jacket. But that is just a couple of instances,” he said, adding they “constantly assist paddleboarders, kayakers and boaters that do not have life vests.”
The U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets — with sizes available for infants to adults — can be signed out for day or weekend use. Once people finish borrowing the complimentary safety gear, they need to return the equipment.
Day is requesting those who partake in the program call 770-324-5403 when they take or return the safety gear.
“It was the right call by the Corps to suspend the program during the pandemic because the life jackets are multi-use and a proper plan to disinfect them after each use needs to be in place before they are put back out to prevent potential spread,” Day said. “I am confident it’s a temporary suspension and will resume once the COVID-19 numbers level off and we as a nation get a handle on the spread of the virus.
“The loaner program has proven to be effective in preventing unintentional drowning and injuries on the lake and it is providing people simple instructions on how to properly fit a life jacket and the intended purpose. Last year, before the pandemic, the Corps and the Safe Kids’ Bartow Coalition were making plans for building more loaner stations in some high traffic areas around the lake in Bartow County and we hope to have them in place this summer.”
Like Day, Christopher Purvis also is an advocate of the Corps’ Allatoona Lake Life Jacket Loaner Program, but emphasized the need to pause it for now.
“Yes, it is recommended that the public wear a life jacket when on or near the lake,” said Purvis, lead ranger over partnerships, public awareness and volunteers for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Allatoona Lake. “While not always required, if people were able to see the incidents I've seen on this lake over the last 15 years, they would never go onto the lake without one.
“The Allatoona Lake Life Jacket Loaner Program has been one of the more successful water safety programs on the lake since its inception in 2006. Unfortunately, the Corps has suspended the Life Jacket Loaner Program nationally until further notice because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of transferring the virus from one user to another. The public is still encouraged to bring and wear their own life jackets and Corps rangers will still provide brand new jackets to the public when warranted.”
Citing “normal to high visitation the last few weeks” at Lake Allatoona, Purvis expects Memorial Day weekend to continue being the venue’s busiest weekend of the year.
“Currently, all Corps operated boat ramps and trails on Allatoona Lake are available to visitors, with beaches, shelters and the Project Office closed until further notice,” he said. “Campgrounds have delayed openings until at least June 1, 2020, and all special event permits have also been canceled until that same date.
“During the shelter in place order in April, Corps ramps saw an increase in visitation across the board. As we have moved into May, visitation continues to be heavy at Corps ramps, typical for this time of year. The Corps has stressed responsible recreation since the beginning of the pandemic, asking visitors to practice social distancing, pack it in — pack it out, and to please wear a life jacket.”
Even though its life jacket loaner offering is suspended, the Corps still is stressing the impact of life jackets through initiatives, like the Life Jackets Worn — Nobody Mourns Program.
“Allatoona has had its fair share of tragedies over the years and has already experienced three drownings this fiscal year,” Purvis said. “Water safety is of the utmost importance to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and our partners. The National Life Jackets Worn — Nobody Mourns Program was created by the Corps a few years ago to help reduce water-related fatalities on our nation's waterways.
“The program is geared at adults, primarily adult men, to wear life jackets because statistics have shown they are at the highest risk of drowning in open waters, such as lakes, rivers, ponds and oceans. Ten-year national Corps statistics concerning water-related deaths have shown that 88% have involved men and 84% of those men were not wearing a life jacket.”
Echoing Day’s and Purvis’ comments, Mark McKinnon — public affairs officer for Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Law Enforcement Division — also underscored the importance of wearing U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets.
“Life jackets save lives, so why not wear one?” he said. “The law says that you must have a properly-fitting, U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket on board for each person on the boat.
“The law also says that anyone under age 13 must be wearing the life jacket if the boat is in motion — under power or drifting. We recommend that everyone wear a life jacket anytime they are on the water.”
When boating, McKinnon shared it’s wise to be ready for the unexpected.
“You never know when the boat may strike an unseen underwater object or have a mechanical problem that could eject someone from the boat,” he said. “It is too late to grab a life jacket then.
“Also, if someone is knocked unconscious when they are ejected, without a life jacket or a quick rescue, drowning is only seconds away. There are no specific laws about wearing a life jacket when swimming but we recommend it as well, especially in natural bodies of water.”
Striving to decrease the number of statewide drownings, Georgia DNR is promoting the SPLASH campaign. When enjoying a day on the water, McKinnon noted it is vital to “exercise caution and to emphasize safety” for all involved.
“There were two drownings and one boating fatality on Allatoona in 2019,” McKinnon said. “Nearly all water-related deaths are preventable if everyone involved follows the law and takes recommended safety precautions. Georgia Game Wardens are not on the waterways to write tickets or to dampen someone’s fun. They truly want everyone to enjoy their time at the lake or river, but to do it safely.
“When swimming, remember the acronym SPLASH:
• Supervision — Designate an adult to watch children at all times. Do not assume someone else is watching.
• Prevention — Wear personal flotation devices, PFD or life jacket; install fencing around pools; and use drain covers in hot tubs and pools.
• Life jackets save lives — Wear them and be sure your children do.
• Arm’s length — Adults should be arm’s length to children in water and safety tools, such as hooks and throwable floatation devices, should be nearby at all times.
• Swim lessons — Knowing how to swim greatly reduces the chance of drowning. Classes are often available through the Red Cross or YMCA.
• Have a water safety plan — Know what to do during a water emergency."