Ask a Firefighter: Life jacket is essential at all times on the water

Ask a Firefighter: Life jacket is essential at all times on the water

The Westerly Sun

Children are interested in our Watch Hill Fire boats, and when the question of water safety comes up, our response is consistent: Always wear your life jacket! It’s been proved time and time again that wearing life jackets while boating can significantly increase your chance of survival should something unexpected happen.

By always wearing life jackets, boaters and passengers can help guarantee that a day on the water does not end in tragedy. A life jacket, otherwise known as a personal flotation device or PFD, is the single most important piece of equipment on your boat.

Kayaking, boating, fishing, and jet skiing are popular throughout the country, with an average of 41 million Americans participating in a boating activity each year.  But, as shown by U.S.  Coast Guard statistics, water enthusiasts and boaters do not always engage in safe practices, and fire departments in Rhode Island and elsewhere respond to many incidents involving boats, kayaks, canoes, and other watercraft.

In fact, the Coast Guard’s recreational boating statistics from 2017 counted 4,291 accidents that involved 658 deaths and 2,629 injuries. Nearly 80 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims, 85 percent were not wearing a life jacket. The USCG also reports that the most common vessel types involved in reported accidents were open motorboats, personal watercraft, cabin motorboats, and kayaks.  

A life jacket doesn’t just dramatically increase your chances for survival, it buys you time. Falling into the water without a life jacket requires you to exert energy to keep yourself afloat while you await assistance. Wearing a life jacket nearly eliminates expending that energy, as it does the work for you. Certain lifejackets are even designed to turn you onto your back and keep your head above water if you are unconscious. They also help you remain in a position that permits proper breathing.

There are plenty of scenarios on the water that can result in tragedy in the absence of  life jackets. They save lives when a vessel is capsized in rough water or when sinking in unexpectedly heavy sea conditions. Passengers may also be thrown from the boat as a result of a collision with another vessel or with a stationary object. People can be thrown off balance while fishing, or get injured by rocks or submerged objects when they are tossed into the water. Freezing water temperatures and heavy or waterlogged clothing can also make it difficult for even the best swimmers to stay afloat.

To meet U.S. Coast Guard requirements, every boat must have a Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person aboard. In addition, boats 16 feet and over must have at least one throwable device as well.

Connecticut and Rhode Island laws require children under the age of 13 to wear a life jacket when onboard a recreational vessel that is underway. It is important to note that adult-sized life jackets will not work for children. To work correctly, a life jacket must be worn, must fit snugly, and must not allow the child’s chin or ears to slip through. Child life jacket approvals are based on the child’s weight and can be verified on the label.

Although not required, firefighters strongly urge all boaters to wear a life jacket when the vessel is underway. A life jacket can save your life, but only if you wear it.  Police officers from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management ask boaters to think of life jackets as they do seat belts. You wouldn’t put your seat belt on just before an accident, and  the same applies to life jackets.

DEM officials also encourage parents to wear their life jackets when their children are on board. By doing so they not only act as a role model for their children, but are ready to help in the event of an accident. Life jackets must be readily accessible so passengers can quickly put them on in the event of an emergency. To facilitate fast donning, they should not be stowed in plastic bags, in locked or closed compartments, or have other gear stowed on top of them.

Life jackets should be tested on a regular basis for wear, tears, and holes. Waterlogged, faded, or leaky jackets should be discarded.

This boating season, please don’t let you or your loved ones become a statistic. Make sure you, and anyone aboard your boat, always wear a life jacket. If you need further information about local regulations for safe boating, please visit or You can also visit for federal regulations on the equipment, including life jackets, required onboard your boat.

Jane Perkins, is a fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please email her at






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