USACE National Water Safety Program: Promoting Safety in Style

Published Aug. 7, 2023
A park ranger in uniform hands out materials to two children and a man.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger hands out water safety materials to children at a Kansas City Monarchs baseball game on May 20, 2023 in Kansas City, Kansas.

A woman in a pink life vest sits in a green kayak and hold up a piece of paper with water in the background.

A kayaker holds a dry bag and a certificate that she received for wearing her life jacket while recreating on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' lake.

A human in a dog costume and a park ranger in uniform talk to a group of children with trees in the background.

Bobber and a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger discuss the importance of water safety.

June, July and August are usually looked upon as some of the most fun months, but these can also be the deadliest. Most drownings at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ lake projects occur in the summer months. The need to inform the public on how to safely recreate on USACE waters led to the formation of the National Water Safety Program.

After World War II, USACE became the powerhouse for not only military construction but also civil works construction, including the construction, operation and maintenance of multi-purpose reservoirs, also referred to as lakes. One of a reservoir’s authorized purposes is recreation, especially water recreation.

Park rangers from different lakes have always collaborated on water safety education, but it wasn’t until 1986 when a unified water safety campaign was formed. To further promote and improve the water safety campaign, USACE created the National Operations for Water Safety, commonly known as the National Water Safety Program, in 1994.

“Water safety is important because it not only saves lives, but it also makes our visitors’ time at our lake and river projects more enjoyable and allows them to return home safe,” said Pam Doty, National Water Safety Program Manager.

The National Water Safety Program consists of the program manager and a visual information specialist who work with the National Water Safety Committee to create impactful water safety campaigns, initiatives and materials to promote water safety for adults and children. The National Water Safety Committee was created in 1995 to give park rangers, natural resource specialists and entry-level managers a voice for those who will be implementing what the National Water Safety Campaign produces.

“I lean on the National Water Safety Committee for information and support. It is a great committee that does tremendous work in providing resources that are used to save lives and keep our visitors safe,” said Doty.

This committee is made up of a representative from each USACE division, a USACE public affairs specialist, safety office representative and bilingual subcommittee chairperson. Each district within USACE also has their own public safety team, which focuses on water safety.

District public safety teams support park rangers in the field by providing the needed or requested materials regarding public safety and planning special events to promote public safety. Normally, these teams are made of park rangers and natural resource specialists who work in the field and interact with the public daily.

“Our main goal as the Kansas City District Public Safety Team is to keep the field engaged in promoting public safety. Communication is a big part of this and starts at the project level and leads into the district and division levels,” said Melissa Bean, district public safety team lead and natural resource manager, Kansas City District.

The National Water Safety Program has two main campaigns, one for children and one for adults. The campaign for children is the Bobber the Water Safety Dog campaign, which promotes water safety in a kid-friendly manner. The campaign for adults is the Life Jackets Worn… Nobody Mourns campaign.

Chances are, if you have visited a USACE lake or river project, you’ve seen these campaigns in action either through billboards, signs, brochures, coloring books or from interacting with park rangers.

“Our goal with the kids campaign is not only to keep them safe, but also get the kids to educate adults as well. I call the kids water safety ambassadors because they take the information back to their parents, grandparents or whoever is watching them,” said Doty. 

One example of how the children’s water safety campaign showcased its importance occurred one morning in the St. Louis District. A grandfather and grandson were fishing when the weather turned for the worse, and 5-foot white-capped waves crashed onto their boat causing the grandfather to go overboard without his life jacket on. Thinking quickly, the grandson, only in third grade at the time, was able to throw his grandfather a rope to tie him to the boat while he got them to shallow water. When asked how the boy knew how to save someone drowning, he replied that the park rangers from Rend Lake had been to his school and given a program on water safety. For his bravery, he was awarded a medal from the St. Louis District.

Since 1998 the National Water Safety Program has been tracking USACE public recreation fatalities. There have been 3,933 fatalities at USACE lake and river projects. Drownings make up 86% of these fatalities. Of those who drowned, 89% were not wearing a life jacket. Adults make up over two-thirds of drowning fatalities, showcasing the importance teaching water safety to not only children, but adults as well. Further research shows that males make up 88% of the fatalities, with the largest age group being between the age of 18 and 35.

“We keep track of the data and trends, and it helps to remind us why we promote water safety as heavily as we do, because there’s always more that can be done,” said Doty.

The Life Jackets Worn… Nobody Mourns adult water safety campaign was born through a partnership with the Corps Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on raising and providing funds for USACE recreation. To aid in the development of the campaign, focus groups comprised of adult males were conducted to understand what would motivate them to wear a life jacket. During these focus groups, the men were discussing and encouraging one another to wear life jackets, with one even being moved to tears by a video.

“If we can make them feel emotion to where they care about others and not only themselves, they will also wear it. The mourns part of the campaign’s message is not a dark message, it’s you’re leaving somebody behind and you’re not there anymore to keep them safe. The last thing a child will remember is being left alone on a boat while their parent drowned. By wearing a life jacket, you’re not only keeping you safe, but you’re also keeping everybody you love safe,” said Doty.

Depending on the USACE lake you frequent, there are many ways the National Water Safety Program’s campaigns can be seen. When first driving to the lake or river project, billboards, posters and other pamphlets can be found alongside roads or in the visitor centers. Many recreators can recall being rewarded for wearing their life jacket with t-shirts, dry bags, beach towels, sunshades and many other prizes. The National Water Safety Program helps to provide these promotional items to park rangers to reward visitors. Even if a recreator does not own their own life jacket, the National Water Safety Program has guidelines on how lakes can provide life jacket loaner stations.

While the exact count of how many lives have been saved through the National Water Safety Program’s campaign efforts is unknown, its value to the nation through educating the public on how to recreate safely on water can be seen.

“Some people will not do better until they know better. Every visitor’s life is worth saving,” said Doty.