Saving Lives at the Top of the World

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Dan Abel, commander, 17th district, hands lifejackets to members of the Barrow, Alaska, community during a Kids Don't Float event at the Barrow High School pool Feb. 3, 2016.  Abel and other Coast Guard personnel from the 17th District demonstrated the effectiveness of several different types of lifejackets and flotation devices during the class.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Dan Abel, commander, 17th district, hands lifejackets to members of the Barrow, Alaska, community during a Kids Don’t Float event at the Barrow High School pool Feb. 3, 2016. Abel and other Coast Guard personnel from the 17th District demonstrated the effectiveness of several different types of lifejackets and flotation devices during the class. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert.

The Iñupiat of Barrow have a history on the waters of the Arctic that can be traced back 1500 years. They owe their survival to the skills they’ve acquired subsisting off the sea’s bounty, and those skills include what they’ve learned about safety. That’s why the people of Barrow welcomed Rear Adm. Dan Abel, commander, USCG 17th District, other Coast Guard personnel and representatives of the Alaska Office of Boating Safety when they brought the Kids Don’t Float education program to the northernmost community in the United States Feb. 3.

Against the backdrop of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission mini-convention” that took place Feb. 1-5, Adm. Abel and other Coast Guard officers from throughout Alaska joined with Kelli Toth, Education Specialist for the Alaska Office of Boating Safety, to demonstrate equipment and methods of surviving exposure to frigid waters.

Garbed in an assortment of lifejackets and a plethora of radios and flotation devices, Abel and his shipmates plunged into the waters of the Barrow High School pool to demonstrate the effectiveness of the equipment. Meanwhile Toth and Mike Folkerts, 17th District boating safety expert, spoke to a gathering of local whaling captains and commissioners as well as subsistence hunters and their children about the necessity of preparation when underway.

“Five out of six recreational boating fatalities in Alaska, which includes subsistence hunting and fishing, are the result of a capsizing, a swamping or falling overboard,” said Toth. “That’s why it’s so important to have a dialog with local community members about the importance of wearing a life jacket, carrying emergency communication and distress signaling devices and filing a float plan so people know where to begin the search and rescue effort if a boater becomes overdue.”

Susan Hargis, Coast Guard 17th District tribal liaison, takes a spill into the Barrow High School pool from a seal hunting boat to demonstrate the effectiveness of a float coat during a Kids Don't Float class in Barrow, Alaska, Feb. 3, 2016.  Kids Don't Float is an Alaska-wide injury prevention program that was developed to address Alaska's high child and youth drowning rate.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert

Susan Hargis, Coast Guard 17th District tribal liaison, takes a spill into the Barrow High School pool from a seal hunting boat to demonstrate the effectiveness of a float coat during a Kids Don’t Float class in Barrow, Alaska, Feb. 3, 2016. Kids Don’t Float is an Alaska-wide injury prevention program that was developed to address Alaska’s high child and youth drowning rate. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert

The Kids Don’t Float education program has been taking its message of safety to Alaskan communities since 1996 and, in addition to equipment demonstrations, the class provides participants an opportunity for some firsthand experience with submersion in a controlled environment.

“Kids Don’t Float participants are offered a chance to get into the pool and try the lifejackets and flotation devices for themselves under the watchful eye of our instructors,” said Folkerts. “There is no substitution for real experience when it comes to training for safety and survival around the water.”

The Kids Don’t Float education program reached over 17,000 children in 2015, a number Toth hopes to increase as 2016 begins and new communities are visited. For the Coast Guard, the visit to Barrow provided a chance to build onto a longstanding relationship with the North Slope.
“One of the Coast Guard’s key priorities is the safety of life at sea and, when it comes to Alaska, there’s been a partnership between the Coast Guard and the people of the Arctic that bridges multiple generations to our days as the Revenue Cutter Service,” said Abel. “What was true then, remains true today: being prepared and having the right equipment can mean the difference between life and death.”

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