Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
Stay current on water safety awareness:

Life Jackets – The Saga Continues

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on March 12, 2014

Life JacketWhen I wrote about the importance of using the term ‘life jacket’ last week, I really did not expect any reaction. After all, how controversial is a life jacket when you are addressing the water safety community? And yet, controversy ensued – about the term, the different types of buoyancy devices, about the different types of life jackets and where they should be used, not to mention the differences by country. So, I’m back talking about lifejackets again this week, but specifically dissecting the importance of terminology, how our internal arguments are keeping us from changing behavior, and how we need to communicate with the public.

The bottom line, our inability to agree and translate water safety into plain language means we aren’t communicating effectively to the public. We hold some of the blame for the lack of safety around water.

The good news, everyone in the water safety field agrees that life jackets are a good thing and that they save lives. So, at least we are starting on common ground with the general concept. Where the controversy arises is in the details, but it’s the details that are keeping us from changing behavior and sending mixed and confusing messages to the public. I do not want to minimize the details, because the details are critical to developing safe solutions, but we are drowning the public in the details that matter to the experts, but not the public.

Let’s start with the facts, as I understand them:

  • A life jacket is one type of PFD (personal flotation device), also known as buoyancy aids. A life-jacket has the buoyancy located high on the front (either in the form of a gas inflated bladder, or as closed-cell foam). It is designed to turn an unconscious casualty onto their back and support their head so that they have an open airway. International standards, specifically ISO BS EN 12402, use this logical and consistent terminology. Some countries also have national standards, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, but generally adhere to international standards.
  • Other buoyancy aids can include garments that aid your buoyancy – but don’t actually position you in any particular orientation in the water. Examples would include vests for water sports and other buoyancy aids, such as flotation cushions and life rings.

What I pull from the discussion is that we have different products, for different scenarios, whose use we need to communicate to the uninformed public. For each scenario we have an activity, or multiple activities, and a product that is best suited to the activity. What we lack is consistent and effective communication that our end audience, the public, understands.

Let’s look at some of the terminology and scenarios out there then address communication strategies:

  • Life jackets are used when you need to keep the head out of the water and place an unconscious victim on their back. Again, for terminology, I return to last week’s blog about the importance of calling them, consistently, life jackets, and not PFDs or some other term.  Life jacket – a jacket that saves your life. The public understands those simple words, which forms the basis of an effective communication campaign if there is consistency in the terminology and the scenario. I assume life jackets should be used during all recreational and commercial boating activities, at a minimum, so we have terminology, life jacket, and a scenario, boating. I leave it to the experts to identify other areas where a life jacket should be used. Yes, I know there will always be exceptions. We can’t reasonably expect everyone on a cruise liner to wear a lifejacket 24/7, but we need to focus our efforts on the rule, not the exception. If we can consistently and effectively address even 80% of scenarios with simple messages, the public is more likely to hear, understand, and change their behavior.
  • Other buoyancy clothing, like the vests that don’t turn the person on their back, are appropriate for active water sports, as they allow mobility. Do these have a commonly used and recognized name? If so, we need to use that term consistently. If not, or if it’s confusing, I’d suggest ‘water sport safety vest’. It is a vest that increases your safety during water sports (but it won’t save your life, unlike a life jacket). Keep it simple and descriptive, something the public can easily understand. Device, activity, simple and consistent message.
  • Other buoyancy devices, like a life ring (a ring you throw that can save a life) or those floating cushions, which I’ve most often seen in lieu of life jackets on boats, have descriptive, easily understood names, but it is not widely understood when they should be used, or how.
  • Children pose an entirely different scenario when it comes to buoyancy aids, though, again, some hard and fast rules should apply – everyone, of every age, should wear a lifejacket when engaged in recreational or commercial boating. First the device, activity, simple and consistent message, and then you can discuss other times a child should wear a different type of buoyancy aid.

We must translate all the knowledge and complexity into easy-to-understand terminology and very clear directions on how and when to use each item if we want to change behavior.

The public does not need to know the details, they don’t want to know all the details, they want to be told what to do – simply.

Let me give an example. I re-damaged an old sailing injury with too much shoveling this winter. It’s my supraspi-something-or-other. The therapists who are helping me have used all the right medical terminology in explaining how the injury occurred, how all the other muscles are affected – basically all the details. I’m insatiably curious, so I was interested, even though I can’t remember the term (ahem, can’t remember the complex technical term, hint, hint), but what I really need to know isn’t the stuff they got all the professional training to learn, it was how do I fix the problem. The details did not make it into my ‘need to know’ mental file. For my specific injury, I needed specific easy-to-understand information to help me heal and rehabilitate. Don’t drive stick shift, don’t swim, don’t do specific motions repetitively, do these exercises. Remember – most of the public does not have an in-depth interest in your area of expertise, they just want to know what you spent years learning in three sentences or less, and only what applies to them personally.

You are the experts. The public does not need to become experts. The public needs to be told what to do – when and how – in common terms and easy-to-understand instructions.

My recommendations for communicating buoyancy aids to the public are the following:

  • Have the experts come to as much agreement as humanly possible on the different buoyancy aids – what they should be called (in consistent, user-friendly, easily interpreted language), when they should be used, and how they should be used.
  • For each aid, break down the specific and simple scenarios where they should be used. i.e. use a life jacket whenever boating. Tell the public what to do – preferably in one sentence. Wear a life jacket whenever you are on a boat. Or, If you are on a boat, wear a life jacket. (ideally I’d like to test the statements for comprehension and later retrieval with a focus group)
  • Include photos or drawings so the public knows what you are talking about. In the case of life jacket vs. water sport safety vest, I’d include photos, ‘this is a life jacket’, ‘this is a water sport safety vest’. Or show the two vests side by side and clearly label ‘life jacket – for boating’ and ‘water sport safety vest – for active water sports, except boating’. Be clear and directive.
  • Get manufacturers on board with the correct terms.  If you are talking about life jackets or water sport safety vests, consistently, you don’t want people going to the store and not seeing, clearly labeled, the life jacket or water sport safety vest they went to purchase.  Eliminate confusion whenever possible, make it easy for people to take the correct action.
  • Once you have their attention, you can provide backup details about the difference if people ask, but keep in mind, most people won’t care to dig that deep, it has no place in their ‘need to know’ file. Tell them – this is a life jacket, this is what a life jacket looks like, use a life jacket when you are boating.

In terms of translating into other languages, our end goal should be such consistency in terminology across languages so that if someone types ‘life jacket’ in to Google translator it comes up with consistent terminology in every language. I’m clearly talking about the English usage, and specifically referring American standards in this blog, but I feel comfortable challenging any native English speaker in any country to find members of the public who understand the term ‘PFD’ of ‘buoyancy aid’ better than ‘life jacket’. Consistency in terminology is tall order, but if we aim for that consistency, no matter what language it is translated into, we can even achieve that level of global uniformity – which then translates into understanding and behavior change.

Oh yes, I think I managed a correct life jacket as the photo today, even though I suspect it’s an outdated version. But if I didn’t, let me know!

Previous post:

Next post:

don’t just tread water get updates: