Water safety officials turn negatives into positives

Spreading the Message video: Preventing death and promoting life are two things that drive water safety programs.  A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District park ranger and recently retired natural resources specialist that led the district’s program to promote water safety sound off on this important topic. (Video by Lee Roberts)

Story by Lee Roberts

Park Ranger Amber Jones stands on the shoreline of J. Percy Priest Lake in Nashville, Tenn., March 15, 2013. (Photo by Lee Roberts)
Park Ranger Amber Jones stands on the shoreline of J. Percy Priest Lake in Nashville, Tenn., March 15, 2013. (Photo by Lee Roberts)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (March 17, 2013) – Park Ranger Amber Jones recalls standing reverently last year in her patrol boat at J. Percy Priest Lake staring at the lifeless shape of a young man in a body bag, which divers had just delivered and seeped lake water as it lay on the boat deck waiting for criminal investigators to arrive.

“There are a lot of young kids out there that like to horseplay and have fun on the lake.  We all do,” Jones said.  “But they sometimes don’t think about the consequences.”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District employees aren’t usually first responders on an accident scene, but it does happen and this drowning is forever etched into Jones’ memory.

That is to be expected, said Carolyn Bauer, a natural resources specialist who retired from her position March 1, 2013 after 35 years of federal service, including the previous 16 leading the organization’s effort to educate the public about water safety.

Carolyn Bauer, who led the water safety program for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District the past 16 years, demonstrates wearing an automatic life vest at J. Percy Priest Lake March 12, 2013.  It inflates with manual movement of T-cord or automatically upon immersion in water and is recommended only for adults who can swim.  Bauer retired from the Corps March 1, 2013 after more than 35 years of federal service. (Photo by Lee Roberts)
Carolyn Bauer, who led the water safety program for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District the past 16 years, demonstrates wearing an automatic life vest at J. Percy Priest Lake March 12, 2013. It inflates with manual movement of T-cord or automatically upon immersion in water and is recommended only for adults who can swim. Bauer retired from the Corps March 1, 2013 after more than 35 years of federal service. (Photo by Lee Roberts)

Bauer said she had similar experiences early in her career when she was a park ranger decades ago in the Huntington District.  “We were the first responders and it shifted from a rescue mode to a recovery mode for a 21-year-old man.  And I was in the boat where we recovered that man, a man who had his whole life in front of him.  I still can remember my hands on his legs as we lifted him up from the water, and he was gone.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District park rangers like Amber Jones wear a badge and take water safety very seriously and work to educate the millions of visitors about their responsibilities on the district’s 10 lakes. (Photo by Lee Roberts)
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District park rangers like Amber Jones wear a badge and take water safety very seriously and work to educate the millions of visitors about their responsibilities on the district’s 10 lakes. (Photo by Lee Roberts)

That experience where the young man made an unwise choice that shortened his life is chiseled in Bauer’s memory just the same as Jones’ recent experience.  “It did make me determined to do my best, you know, to focus on the positive parts of people coming to the lake but get them to know – hey, use some caution. Use some common sense.  Put some safety measures into effect,” Bauer said.

Bauer said her experience made her think she was potentially in a position to make a difference for others, and throughout the years she’s tried to share that approach with Corps employees involved with customer outreach initiatives around the 10 lakes on the Cumberland River and its tributaries that draw more than 33 million visitors annually.

“When you do water safety programs, you get the word out. You never know who you might have touched.  But you keep pitching that ball out there because maybe someone went home that day that might not have if you hadn’t helped get them more knowledgeable about the smart thing to do when they came to the lake.,” Bauer said.

Carolyn Bauer latches her automatic life vest around her waist. (Photo by Lee Roberts)
Carolyn Bauer latches her automatic life vest around her waist. (Photo by Lee Roberts)

Jones said she appreciates everything Bauer taught her about water safety, but what she most values is Bauer’s enthusiasm that motivated her and the other park rangers to get out in the local communities to also make a difference.

The park rangers visit schools, sporting events, outdoor related activities and frequent recreation areas, campgrounds and Corps facilities in hopes of teaching people of all ages about wearing their life jackets, paying close attention to kids, boating safely, never swimming alone and reducing risks when around the water. Despite their best efforts and successes with the program, people still get hurt and die on the lake.

Since 1970 there have been 881 fatalities on Nashville District lakes. In 2011 there were 19 and the figure dropped to nine in 2012. It’s a short-term downward trend that Corps officials hope continues in 2013 with the help of partner agencies such as the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Park Ranger Amber Jones looks out across J. Percy Priest Lake in Nashville, Tenn., March 15, 2013. She works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District and is always on the lookout for people’s safety as they recreate on the lake. (Photo by Lee Roberts)
Park Ranger Amber Jones looks out across J. Percy Priest Lake in Nashville, Tenn., March 15, 2013. She works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District and is always on the lookout for people’s safety as they recreate on the lake. (Photo by Lee Roberts)

It’s a concerted effort, but those messages are resonating.  It’s still so very surreal when people make unwise choices and fatalities or injuries result, Jones said.

This is why the young park ranger said she thinks often about that day on the lake last year when she watched over somebody’s son who would never return home to his loved ones.

When the investigators finally arrived to the boat that day on the lake Jones said they opened the body bag and the sight of the deceased bothered her for an entire week.

“I think negative experiences can turn into positive experiences at the same time because seeing that awful experience motivates me that much more to get out there and spread the water safety message,” Jones said.  “If we go out and tell stories like this it will maybe prevent other drownings from occurring.”

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