In 88 percent of all open-water related deaths the victim was not wearing a life vest. To help combat that statistic and make life jackets more accessible the Ryan Thomas Foundation and The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) have built 18 life jacket loaner kiosks at popular Arizona lakes. 

The Ryan Thomas Foundation was founded in 2009 after Ryan Thomas, an ASU student, drowned in Saguaro Lake. 

“(Ryan) was with five friends when he decided to go into the water one more time to cool off just as they were docking the boat. He rolled off the side of the boat and never resurfaced,” said Shannon Liebrock, founder of the Ryan Thomas Foundation. 

According to the City of Phoenix’s drowning and water incidenct statistics, there were eight adult fatalities and six children fatalities out of 55 total incidents in 2017.  

The AZGFD has been working with the Ryan Thomas Foundation to bring awareness to the importance of life jackets and the dangers of teen and adult drownings. Both institutions have been working together for about 5 years now to get the kiosks installed. 

It is an Arizona law that everyone ages 12 or younger must be wearing a life jacket at-all-times while on a lake, whether boating or doing any other water activity. 

Lori Schmidt, immediate past president of the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona, said anyone can become a victim to water-related accidents, regardless of their swimming abilities.  

She noted that the need for swimming skills is significantly higher once a person is in a lake or river.  

“We encourage that, even though the law says 12, everyone should wear a life vest all the time when on the lake,” Schmidt said. 

There are 16 life jacket loaner kiosks at popular Arizona Lakes. Lakes include Saguaro Lake, Bartlett lake, Canyon lake, Apache Lake and Lake Pleasant. 

The life jackets are free for the public to use on an honor system. Liebrock said she noticed that for the most part people follow this honor system. 

Each kiosk is stocked with about 10 to 15 lifejackets and are available all year long. People can use the lifejackets at their leisure and return them when they are done, whether that is at the end of the day or the season. 

“We lose about 50 life jackets a month, but our philosophy is, if they are not returned, they’re hopefully on their boat for the next time. We don’t get too hung up with how many jackets are being lost every month, we just want to make sure people have them and that they’re available,” Liebrock said. 

The life jacket kiosks have been available at the popular Arizona lakes for about two years now. Because this program is still relatively new in Arizona there is no data that shows whether or not these kiosks are actually helping to decrease the number of deaths caused by open water drownings. 

According to a report conducted by the JSI Research and Training Institute, the life jacket wear rates in Arizona have gone up two percent in the last two years, said Kim Jackson, AZGFD Boating and Off-Highway Vehicle Safety Education program manager. 

“One of AZGFD’s goals is to make sure a day of boating isn’t spoiled just because a family forgot a life jacket at home,” Jackson said. 

For more information about the life jacket loaner kiosks please contact the Arizona Department of Game and Fish or visit the Ryan Thomas Foundation’s website.