A Clark County manufacturer has put itself at the forefront of a campaign to install life jacket loaner stations at every public-accessible waterway in Washington.
“Every state park, any port or marina — anywhere there’s a risk of drowning,” said Kim Silagy-Ruestig, general manager of Cheyenne Manufacturing. The company specializes in fiberglass marine safety products such as housing cabinets for life rings — the emergency floatation devices often installed at docks and piers.
Cheyenne has produced several life ring cabinets through a donation-funded model, Silagy-Ruestig said — it’s a common project for the Boy Scouts — but more recently, the company decided to try a similar approach for its life jacket storage product, which the company refers to as Dock Bin Floatation Stations.
Cheyenne’s project ties into a long-standing goal of the Washington State Parks Boating Program, which works to get free life jacket loaner stations installed throughout the state. The stations house a lineup of life jackets of all sizes and can be installed at any place where the public has access to the water for swimming or boating.
“We like to have 12 life jackets per stand,” said Derek VanDyke, education coordinator for the Washington State Parks boating program.
The boating program receives federal funding through the U.S. Coast Guard, VanDyke said, some of which can be used to purchase life jackets, but the agency often works with outside groups including the Seattle Children’s Hospital, Safe Kids Washington and now Cheyenne Manufacturing to get individual loaner stations set up.
There are more than 200 life jacket stations in place throughout Washington, VanDyke said, but not all of them are on waterways managed by the state — cities, fire departments and private entities such as ports and marinas have to be willing to work with the department to get stations installed and maintain them once they’re in place.
VanDyke said Cheyenne approached the agency last year with a proposal to build a series of new donation-funded loaner stations, and he thought the idea was intriguing because of the potential to make the boxes tougher, brighter and more standardized.
Some of the existing stations are just ropes suspended between two poles, he said, leaving the life jackets exposed to the elements. Life jackets wear out faster when exposed to moisture, mold and UV radiation, he said, so the weatherproof bins should extend the jackets’ life spans.
A standardized color scheme will also help teach people what to look for, he said. The bright yellow Cheyenne boxes are decked out with signs and stickers encouraging visitors to grab a life jacket and wear it at all times while in or on the water.
“If they look the same, (people) know what it is,” he said.
The Cheyenne boxes normally retail for about $500 each, Silagy-Ruestig said, although Cheyenne is using a rate of $420 per box for the donation-funded ones. The boxes will be stamped with the names of the donors, and she said the company is targeting both groups and local companies to see if they’d be interested in sponsoring a box.
Scouting county sites
Cheyenne has been working with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to scout box locations in Clark County and get them installed.
Sheriff’s Deputy Brett Anderson from the sheriff’s Marine Patrol team said the agency supports the boxes as a way to spur people to use life jackets. The sheriff’s office has previously worked with PacificCorp to install loaner stations at its recreation sites along the Lewis River.
People don’t tend to reliably wear life jackets unless they are kayaking, Anderson said, or unless they’ve had a prior experience falling in the water. And too many visitors tend to underestimate both the speed of river currents and the shock of falling into cold Pacific Northwest water.
“If people wore them, we would totally cut down on the number of drownings we have per year,” he said.
Anderson and VanDyke acknowledged that there are concerns about people not returning the life jackets to the stations when they’re done, but they both had essentially the same response: If a couple jackets go missing, it’s no big deal.
“As long as they use it, we really don’t care,” Anderson said.
There have been some losses at the existing stations, VanDyke said, but there have also been some gains — used jackets donated by individuals who drop them off directly at the stations.
Cheyenne is scheduled to start delivering the first round of life jacket boxes within the next month, and they’ll likely be installed at local locations such as the Port of Ridgefield — Anderson said he and Cheyenne approached the port commission last month to make the case for a loaner station.
VanDyke said the state program’s relationship with Cheyenne is still being defined, and he thinks of the initial round of Cheyenne-built stations as a sort of unofficial pilot program, one that the agency will hopefully be able to revise as needed and then scale up to apply statewide in the future.
Cheyenne’s enthusiasm for the project is evident in its goals: Silagy-Ruestig said the company plans to build at least 1,000 loaner boxes by the end of 2020.
That might be a little ambitious for one year, VanDyke said — if for no other reason than that boating program doesn’t have the funding to buy 12,000 life jackets all at once — but in the long term, he said, the state could absolutely find 1,000 sites in need of boxes.
For the initial round in Clark County, Silagy-Ruestig and Anderson said they hope they can get the stations installed in the next few months, ahead of the hot summer weather that will bring people out and into the water.