Students warm up to cold water safety

Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Belisle, a rescue swimmer from Air Station Sitka, Alaska, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Walters, a crew member at Aids to Navigation Team Sitka, help students into a life raft during a cold water safety program in Sitka, May 14, 2015. Coast Guard members partner with Alaska Marine Safety Education Association and the Sitka School District annually to teach students about cold water survival. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Jason Condon)

Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Belisle, a rescue swimmer from Air Station Sitka, Alaska, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Walters, a crew member at Aids to Navigation Team Sitka, help students into a life raft during a cold water safety program in Sitka, May 14, 2015. Coast Guard members partner with Alaska Marine Safety Education Association and the Sitka School District annually to teach students about cold water survival. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Jason Condon)

SITKA, Alaska – Since 2007, an average of 50 drownings has occurred every year in Alaska. This is the highest rate of drownings in the country.

To make a change, Sitka School District partners annually with Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, Coast Guard Air Station Sitka rescue swimmers and Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Sitka personnel to host a cold water safety program.

The program started more than 20 years ago and targeted third-grade students. The program has since expanded to educate first-, third-, fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders, and now impacts over 500 students per year.

Lessons range from classroom presentations, which explain life jackets and immersion suits, to outdoor training, which emphasizes building shelters and surviving on a beach. Each age group learns survival techniques that are tailored to their learning ability.

Coast Guard rescue swimmers play a major role in the third-grade lessons. The training starts in the controlled pool environments, where the rescue swimmers teach kids how to put on a survival suit, stay in a group, enter a life raft and climb in a rescue basket.

A group of third-graders from Sitka, Alaska, wearing survival suits participate in a cold water safety program in Sitka, May 14, 2015. The program teaches more than 500 students per year about cold water survival techniques. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Jason Condon)

A group of third-graders from Sitka, Alaska, wearing survival suits participate in a cold water safety program in Sitka, May 14, 2015. The program teaches more than 500 students per year about cold water survival techniques. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Jason Condon)

Last week, Sitka third graders put on survival suits and tested their knowledge in 46-degree water. The students gained a firsthand experience and an appreciation for survival suits.

Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Belisle is one of the six rescue swimmers at the air station that has volunteered more than 30 hours to teaching the kids.

He said he truly believes in the invaluable hands-on training.

“The kids might be the ones that help the adults realize the scope of the emergency and initiate putting on the survival suits before it’s too late,” said Belisle.

The reality of the cold water hit home with most of the third-graders. Sometimes the weather can be deceptively warm, but things can change quickly, and once a person enters the water time is limited.

The students gained knowledge about the dangers that can arise in Alaska and the skills to decrease incidents on the water, and they will be back again next year.

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