Alex suffered severe brain trauma. Her face now has 3 metal plates and 12 screws to hold her jaw in place.

Twelve years ago, concerned, proactive citizens organized Lake of the Ozarks Water Safety Council (LOWSC). This year, they held a free Water Safety Seminar at Camden on the Lake to recommend and emphasize the importance of choosing life by making two simple, good decisions: “Wear a life jacket and designate a sober driver.” 

The first good decision—wear a life jacket--is the same one promoted by Missouri’s Water Patrol and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) whose duties and responsibilities include educating the public about safety. Captain Matt Walz, Director of Missouri’s Water Patrol division, and Tasha Sadowicz, Chief of Enforcement with USCG, urged those in attendance to wear a life jacket at the water's edge, on the dock, and while boating. Walz reported seven of 10 drownings are non-boating related, and Sadowicz noted that 8 of 10 drowning victims are not wearing a life jacket. In other words, people fall into lakes, rivers, and pools not wearing life jackets more than they fall overboard, and almost all could survive if they had a life jacket on.

One of LOWSC’S speakers on May 11 is living proof of the efficacy of life jackets. At the age of 13, Alex Otte was idling on a jet ski in her daddy’s “backyard”—the Kentucky lake he calls home, the lake where she’d grown to love the water. She saw a boat and signaled to her family nearby that she would stay in place as she was not in its path, but this driver, convicted of Boating While Intoxicated multiple times, turned suddenly and ran over her.

Alex suffered severe brain trauma. Her face now has 3 metal plates and 12 screws to hold her jaw in place. The impact lacerated her liver, shattered both femurs, led to the amputation of her right leg, and left her clavicle beyond repair. 

Alex was face-down in the water for 3.5 minutes. Yet, she lived to tell her story, and one point of it is: Alex survived being face down in the water because she made the smart choice to abide by the rules and wear a life jacket. She didn’t sink.

The man chose badly, however. He chose to drink to drunkenness and drive a boat. More than 30 bystanders at the marina where he drank chose not to stop him. Now,  Otte works in boater education. She wants everyone to make smarter choices than that man did, the same choices advocated by LOWSC. 

Captain Walz told the audience 40% of boating accidents are alcohol related. Other causes at Lake of the Ozarks include the unique features of this lake. It is, in fact, he said, one of the busiest waterways in the U. S. With approximately 27,000 docks and 70,000 slips, this lake is highly trafficked. The fact that many boaters may be inexperienced—even tourists driving boats for the first-time—adds to the likelihood that accidents will happen so LOWSC, Missouri’s Water Patrol, and USCG all recommend and collaborate to teach the public about boating safety and navigation rules. Any of those groups can direct the public to a resource for both.

Missouri’s Water Patrol and USCG have the authority and mission to insure safety, not only by educating the public, but also by enforcing laws and regulations. USCG does not need probable cause to stop a boat or board it whereas Missouri’s Water Patrol does. The one exception for the Patrol is during Checkpoint events announced and publicized. During these, the patrol will stop boats and try to “catch” people doing the right thing. A child wearing a life jacket could receive a t-shirt donated by Ameren and reading “Got Caught Wearing My Lifejacket.” A family with life jackets readily accessible and not in closed or locked compartments would receive praise. A family waving an orange caution flag when towing a skier might learn that the flag should be aloft only when the skier is down in the water waiting to be picked or pulled up, not when actually being towed.

Another speaker driving home the importance of life jackets when near, around, or in the water was Darin Keim, owner of Big Surf Water Park. He shared the loss of a dear friend, Jason Charilton, an avid fisherman like Keim. Jason’s wife, Jenny, supports Keim in repeating Jason’s story as a cautionary tale. She and Darin want everyone to know that even the most experienced and sensible among us can fall victim to the water, especially if not wearing a life jacket, and Jason was not.

Mariah Swinker, Trauma Coordinator with Lake Regional Health System, sees the effects of accidents and trauma at the lake. She noted that the top 3 causes of lake-related trauma are falls, water sports such as wakeboarding or tubing, and boating. An influx of people with fun on their minds, reckless behaviors, and substance abuse, including drinking too much, send many to the hospital, but there’s an “App for That.” Corey Boelkens is the founder and CEO for RaftUp, a free telephone app that sends an SOS signal activating a call to 9-11 operators and sending a location. He was at the seminar to share his app’s usefulness for boaters.

Another speaker was Michael Boyd with Lake of the Ozarks Association of Electrical Contractors, a non-profit group working to train and certify electrical contractors to make docks safer. Five of the lake’s companies have committed to train and become certified, and by the end of the year, home owners should be able to hire certified contractors. Boyd also recommended an annual inspection by a certified inspector due to the water’s impact on docks at this lake.

The next LOWSC promotion is May 17 when it joins boating professionals and outdoor enthusiasts for the annual Wear Your Life Jacket to Work day. LOWSC asks people to wear a life jacket to work, pose for a photo, and post that photo to LOTOWaterSafety on Facebook or email the photo to in order to increase the public’s awareness of how cool it is to be safe when near, in, and on the water.