As the expression goes, being in hot water means being in trouble. Organizers and presenters at a water safety event held Saturday expanded on that phrase by explaining to kids that being in water in general can be big trouble especially the cold water in Alaska.
The Splash into Safety fair at the Alaska Department of Transportation Park in downtown Soldotna offered a variety of displays, games and interactive presentations geared toward teaching kids many aspects of water safety. The Kenai Peninsula Safe Kids Coalition for the central Kenai Peninsula teamed up with several sponsors to put on the fair, which is planned to become a yearly event.
Organizers estimated that more than 110 kids participated in the fair and, counting parents and guardians, about 350 people came by in all.
"It's going good," said Scott Feldmann, a Coast Guard representative with the Kenai Peninsula Safe Kids Coalition. "For the first year, this is more than I expected."
Aside from being an organizer, Feldmann also was an attraction at the fair as Coasty the Safety Seal. His job as the black-and-white speckled faux fur mascot was to go around and let kids see that giant talking seals wear life jackets, so they should, too.
He said many kids already knew him from his trips to discuss water safety in schools. The ones who haven't seen Coasty before are a little more apprehensive of him as are any dogs that happen to catch a glimpse of him, he said.
Along with Coasty, kids had several attractions to learn from throughout the day. One that was particularly popular with younger children was a station explaining why it's important to wear life jackets.
The demonstrations of the HELP (heat escape lessening position) and group huddling techniques were made more fun by Splish and Splash the clowning water safety mime duo.
Baruch Curry, 10, said his favorite station was one that had kids act out Leave No Trace tips like picking up garbage. His brother, Bakkar, 8, most enjoyed a station where kids could put their arms in cold water and feel, firsthand, how it impaired their flexibility and motor skills. For Brynne, 4, the station on how to safely enter and exit a canoe was the most fun.
The kids' mother, Jennifer Curry, said the fair was a good time overall.
"All the kids seemed to like it," she said. "... There was a good combination between talking and having the kids do things."
She especially liked that many of the stations repeated the theme of the importance of wearing life jackets and kept having the the kids act out the HELP position.
"All this stuff is on the handouts that you read but (it's good) when you actually go through the motions themselves to where they're automatic," she said.
Other stations involved fishing safety tips and aspects of water safety, from dealing with water currents to avoiding sharp rocks.
Central Emergency Services was on hand with its rescue boat and diving equipment to let kids see who might be coming to their assistance if they get in trouble in the Kenai River.
The kids had lots of questions for the CES crew, including how fast does the boat go, what the nozzle on the front of it is for and if they save people, said CES Fire Marshal Gary Hale. Assistant Fire Marshal and diver Gordon Orth let the kids try on his flippers and try to lift the weight belt he uses in his dives. At 40 pounds, it was heavier than some of the kids at the fair.
"We've got the neatest toys," Orth joked.
"Needed toys," he added.
Another popular attraction was the HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter that the Coast Guard flew up from Kodiak for the fair. Having the rescue diver descend to the grass on the cable before the helicopter landed was especially a crowd pleaser.
Mike Retone plays the role of Splish in the Splish and Splash duo Saturday morning.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"I think all the kids are enamored with being rescue swimmers, especially the boys," said Lt. Jimmy Knapp, the aircraft commander. "When they see the guy come down the cable, that's what they want to do."
The helicopter crew let curious kids and parents commandeer the pilot seats and conduct their own tours of the aircraft and answered any questions people had. Knapp said the Coast Guard jumps at chances to interact with the public and let them know what they do.
"Whenever we can get off the airport where people can get right up to this and see it (we do)," Knapp said. "We try to answer every outreach opportunity we have. It helps community awareness and understanding."
Knapp explained that the Kodiak-based rescue helicopter fleet responds to emergencies from the Kenai area of Cook Inlet south, in the Seward area and out through the Aleutians. They've done rescues in the Bering Sea and, in the summer, a helicopter is stationed in Cordova, as well.
"We focus on the coastline. We're ready to respond in case somebody's in trouble," he said.
Knapp's hope in doing community outreach like the Splash into Safety fair is to get people to remember that the Coast Guard is there to help if they think they're in trouble.
"If you're in the water and you're on your own, you definitely want to see (this helicopter) before too long," he said.
Splash into Safety is an extension of Kids Don't Float, a drowning prevention program that advocates personal flotation device use for children. The program provides loaner PFDs for kids to use when on the water.
"In Alaska, the Kids Don't Float have had nine or 10 documented saves because of that loaner program," said Jane Fellman, coordinator of the Kenai Peninsula Safe Kids Coalition.
While providing loaner PFDs is a valuable service, Fellman would rather that all kids have a proper-fitting PFD of their own and know when and how to wear it. To meet that goal, any child who attended all the fair's stations was eligible to get a Mustang brand PFD for the discounted price of $10.
In the past, water safety has been lumped in with other Safe Kids events, but Fellman and the coalition thought it was important enough to deserve its own event, especially as summer fast approaches.
"Drowning is a major killer of children," Fellman said.
According to statistics posted in one booth at the event, drowning was the leading cause of death for 5- to 9-year-olds in Alaska from 1996 to 2000 and the second leading cause of death of 10- to 14-year-olds.
"We're way above the (national average) as far as drownings," Fellman said.
Though the booths at the Splash into Safety fair focused mainly on boating-related safety, drowning is a threat to children in wading pools, bath tubs and anywhere more than a few inches of water can accumulate. For instance, an estimated 40 children drown in the United States in 5-gallon buckets a year and an average of 350 drown in bathtubs a year.
Though the crowd petered off toward the end of the event, organizers were pleased with the turnout, and several parents were pleased with the information and PFDs the kids got.
"It was very informative," said Joyce Moldenhauer of Sterling, who brought her kids Josiah, 12, Zachary, 7, and Maria, 5. "I think it was good for the kids. It's good for them to have further teaching from someone other than mom and dad."
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