Life Jackets: Not Just for Boating

Eric Herman Headshot

Eric HermanThe Boston Globe recently ran an article covering the efforts of a bereaved father trying to make something good come from his son’s drowning death. Derek Frechette’s son, three-year-old Christian, drowned in a lake while attending a local summer camp near their home in Sturbridge; according to the article, Christian was not wearing any sort of flotation device while playing near the water and was found in the lake’s shallows near a small dock after a frantic search. 

The story discusses the heartbreak and ensuing familial problems and alcohol abuse Frechette suffered after his son’s death. Now some four years later, Frechette has pulled his life and marriage back together an is now mounting a campaign supporting a new state law mandating that all state- and town-sponsored camps in Massachusetts provide Coast Guard-approved life jackets for kids playing in the water. 

The story really brought back some profound memories for me personally. My kids, like many in southern California, were pretty much raised in the constant presence of swimming pools. Back in those early days of parenthood I recall being positively terrified by the prospect of child drowning, but at the same time I wanted my kids to safely enjoy the many benefits of swimming and the overall pleasure of time in an around the water. 

As a solution, we turned to what seemed a logical solution. Whenever my kids were anywhere near the water, and especially during parties and other aquatic-oriented gatherings, both my son and daughter wore kid-sized ski vests, always Coast Guard-approved. It wasn’t a negotiable point. If they wanted to get wet, they wore the vests. The vest afforded them full mobility in and out of the water and there was no chance of them deflating. My thought was that the vests didn’t alter the need for constant supervision and other safety measures, but they added another important layer of protection.

What happened was that my kids — especially my son, who went on to become a competitive swimmer and water polo player, and later a lifeguard and swim instructor — were able to play in the water, including deep water, with wild abandon. They both learned to swim at an early age and developed a familiarity with water and a love of swimming that would inform their entire lives. Some people argued that the vests gave us all a false sense of safety, but I never saw it that way. The vests were a constant reminder that there are risks in water and also offered a way to dramatically reduce those risks. 

What always surprised me was that other parents we knew didn’t follow the lead and often opted instead for the inflatable “water wings,” which although better than nothing always seemed to me to limit movement and could possibly deflate or slip off those little flailing arms. I’m not knocking inflatable devices so much as saying the life jacket option seemed a better solution. 

As the summers wore on, our family wore out numerous vests until, eventually, both my kids were competent swimmers and well beyond the age where kids are at maximum risk. 

In short, I applaud Derek Frechette’s efforts to raise awareness of the usefulness of life vests and make sure that they are available where kids and water come together. For our purposes in the pool and spa industry, I’d like to see more emphasis put on the use of such equipment in conjunction with swimming and safety education. 

Vests should never be viewed as a replacement for layers of protection, be it fences, self-closing gates, alarms and of course, the most important layer of all, parental supervision. Focus on vests should, I believe, be considered an extremely important part of the safety equation — one that happens to enable and empower aquatic activity in an extremely positive way. 

Just a thought . . .    

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