Increase in Kansas drownings has officials looking for answers

Erika Brooks is at a loss for why at least 12 people have drowned in Kansas lakes, streams and ponds this spring and summer. Four died over the Fourth of July weekend.

“You ask the public, ‘What’s the first piece of equipment you need for safety near the water?’ and about everybody will tell you life jackets,” said Brooks, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism boating education coordinator.

“They know, but nobody wants to wear them.”

Dan Hesket, the department’s boating director for about 11 years, said this is probably the worst year for drownings since he started. Last year was about average, he said, with six drownings. He’s only counting drownings where Wildlife and Parks officers helped work the case, which normally wouldn’t include drownings in swimming pools and auto accidents.

Hesket said eight who died this year weren’t involved with boats. They were wading, swimming with friends or swimming to or from a boat. He thinks some may have been wading in unfamiliar territory.

“With the a lot of the lakes down, things have changed,” said Hesket. “Now, it seems we have people wading along and they hit a drop-off and they go down. ”

Though people who can’t swim are almost always in some degree of peril at lakes, even some who can are prone to overestimating their abilities.

“When we get into contact with (drowning victims’) families, the majority said they could swim,” Hesket said. “But there are a lot things that can happen, even to really good swimmers that can lead to trouble.”

Alcohol use can be a contributing factor, as can simple fatigue as the combination of hours of playing outdoors and summer heat zap energy reserves. Kansas winds can complicate things quickly, too.

Hesket has stories of someone swimming after a boat that’s drifted off, thinking they can swim faster than the boat is drifting. By the time the person realizes they won’t be able to catch the boat they’re exhausted, too far from shore to return and often not wearing a life jacket.

Brooks has spent much of the last few years trying to educate Kansas boaters on the importance of wearing life jackets when afloat. State law says children 12 and younger must wear approved floatation devices while aboard a boat, even if it’s anchored.

“Things are getting better with children,” she said. “For the most part we’re not seeing a whole lot of kids without life jackets anymore.”

Still, one of this year’s deaths was a 2-year-old, not wearing a floatation device, who fell from a boat at Milford Reservoir on May 18.

Many adults still have room for improvement, Brooks said.

“(Approved floatation devices) have to be at least readily accessible,” she said. “They can’t be in a closed compartment, or zipped up in a bag and they have to be of the right size for the intended user.”

Still, Rachel Johnson, National Safe Boating Council communications director, said accidents have mostly been on a downward swing for many years. Boating fatalities, which were mostly drownings, were about 40 per 100,000 boats nationally in the early 1960s. Since 2000, the number has been about five to seven per 100,000 boats.

Johnson said major drops occurred when laws were enacted, such as stricter drunk boating laws and more stringent requirements for life jackets. She also thought educational programs are also helping, as are increasingly comfortable types of floatation devices such as inflatable fanny packs.

Brooks has been taking the message to the lakes as part of the department’s “Wear It Kansas” program. It includes educational outreach programs near boat ramps and checking boats on the water. Boaters found wearing life jackets are usually given T-shirts.

“Nobody ever thinks anything bad is going to happen to them,” Hesket said, “but it can happen to anybody if they’re not careful.”