SIKESTON -- As many area residents head to the lake or hang out poolside this Fourth of July weekend, officials are warning them to take precautions to ensure a safer holiday on the water.
"Traditionally this week is one of the busiest times of the year," noted Sgt. Paul E. Kennedy, director of Missouri State Water Patrol. "This will be the first time many boaters venture out on the water at night so they need to take precautions."
Last week Gov. Bob Holden signed into law a bill mandating boating safety education. In 2005, operators of vessels on the lakes of the state born after Jan. 1, 1984, will have to take a boating safety education course, Kennedy explained, adding that it wouldn't hurt all operators to take the course.
While there haven't been any drownings in lakes or rivers in the area yet, seven drownings have occurred statewide this year, Kennedy said. The Water Patrol will be working extended shifts and targeting areas where violations result in higher risk of accident involvement, he said.
"In years past, more fatalities have occurred around the St. Louis area as more people are trying to race home at night by vessel," Kennedy said. "And inattention is the probably the biggest cause in boating/swimming accidents, due to boating stressors and alcohol intoxication."
Up to 50 percent of fatal boating accidents involve alcohol use, the Water Patrol reported.
"Usually a lot of celebrating takes place on the Fourth with alcohol consumed on the waterways," noted New Madrid County Sheriff Terry Stevens. "But alcohol and water just don't mix."
Stevens said no drownings have occurred in the county this year. On average, one drowning occurs about every 18 months in New Madrid County, he added.
"We haven't had a lot of near-drownings or drownings. It does seem to be a seasonal trend though," noted Judy Johnson, nurse manager of the emergency room at Missouri Delta Medical Center.
The last drowning Johnson witnessed -- which was about a year ago -- was alcohol-related, she said, adding that she's seen an equal number of children and adult near-drownings and drownings.
"Drowning is a silent killer -- especially with kids," noted Heidi Crowden, Safe Kids coordinator for Southeast Missouri. "They're attracted to the water. It's blue and pretty. They don't realize they can't walk on it."
According to Safe Kids organization, a child should always be watched when in or near water, even shallow wading pools.
"If children are going to be in wading pools, parents should dump out the water and flip the pool over immediately after swimming is over because children can drown in as little as an inch of water," Crowden said.
Home and neighborhood pools should be surrounded by a 5-foot fence with self enclosing and self-latching gates, Crowden said.
In Steven's 19 years working in law enforcement, he can only remember one pool drowning, he said. It was an infant and there was a security gate around the pool, but somehow the child got through, he explained.
So far there haven't been any drownings in Mississippi County this year, said Terry Parker, Mississippi County coroner. Parker thinks it's because parents are supervising their children more and there's been more awareness and education about water safety, he said.
Approximately 80 percent of victims in fatal boating accidents aren't wearing life jackets, according to the Water Patrol. For this reason, Kennedy recommends people wear life jackets approved by the Coast Guard and to especially wear them at night.
"When you wear a life jacket, your chances of survival are so much greater if your thrown in," Kennedy said.
Parents need to remember that inflatable toys are not substitutes for supervision, Kennedy said.
"Water wings" and other pool toys are not life jackets, Crowden agreed.
"Even if children have had swimming lessons, they still need to wear a life jacket. Sometimes kids will panic if they get in a scary situation such as near drowning. They forget everything at once so it's best that they wear a life jacket, too, Crowden advised.
Never swim alone, Kennedy advised, and if a person is with someone who is drowning, he suggested to do what Water Patrol calls "Reach, Throw, Row and Go."
"Reach with your hand or pole for the person. Throw some sort of buoyant object. Row a boat out to get them," Kennedy explained. "And if trained, go get them, or if untrained, go get help."