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Growing NPS water safety involvement

NPS Chief Ranger Joe Hinkes

August 13, 2014

The Upper Delaware shares a dire statistic with the rest of the more than 300 areas managed by the National Park Service (NPS): drowning is the primary cause of visitor fatalities, according to Upper Delaware NPS Chief Ranger Joe Hinkes.

Since 2008, more than 300 people—one-third of all fatalities—have been drowned in the national parks, 62 just since 2013, Hinkes told the Upper Delaware Council on August 7.
In 2011, there were five drownings in the Upper Delaware, the most in any year since 1980.

Admitting that NPS is a somewhat insular agency that doesn’t normally seek outside advice, Hinkes said the numbers prompted the NPS to re-evaluate its safety efforts. The review prompted participation in the National Safe Boating Counci’s “Wear it” campaign.

Since then, the campaign’s logo has been appearing on everything from roadside signs to livery employees shirts. NPS has been conducting a wear-rate survey since 2012, and found that wear-rates increased from 52.5% to 62.4% in 2013. Hinkes, who served in the Upper Delaware in 1996, said, “It seems like more are in use now.”

Life jackets still get the most use, 90%, in high water—river levels over six feet, when NPS enforces their use and issues warnings and summons for non-use. “Education is ineffective without enforcement,” Hinkes said.

In addition, NPS has developed relationships with the liveries and area summer camps. NPS now sends rangers to the camps to conduct water safety talks during campers’ first-day orientation.
The park service is also experimenting with video public service announcements, aiming them at the metropolitan areas of New York and New Jersey. “We want to target home areas and demographics,” Hinkes said.

The safety effort has also included the liveries’ introduction of life jackets that people are more likely to keep on, when rangers aren’t watching them, and that’s the goal, since “no one has ever drowned in the Upper Delaware while wearing a life jacket,” Hinkes noted.

However, people who wear them while boating, still remove them to swim.

He recalled a Memorial Day drowning incident, in which a young male boater after being told not to, removed his lifejacket to swim. “Ninety-five percent of drowning victims here are single males, aged 18 to 28, and they are the hardest group to get behavioral change from.”

Acting on Hinkes’ program, at the end of UDC session, Berlin Township delegate Al Henry moved that UDC make life-preserver use mandatory on the council’s annual raft trip.