Can Social Media Help Save Lives At Lake Mead National Recreation Area?

The safety videos include some compelling story lines and images, including this wife trying frantically to throw a life jacket to her husband. NPS image.

Rangers at Lake Mead National Recreation Area have an on-going challenge: how to encourage visitors at one of the country's most popular parks to use common-sense and basic safety devices to reduce the area's sobering accidental death toll. The park staff has now turned to social media to promote three new videos that they hope will help save lives.

The park is within a day's drive or less for about 30 million people, including major metropolitan areas in southern California, Arizona and Utah, and is on the doorstep of Las Vegas. That makes the park's two large lakes a huge draw for residents in the arid region, but unfortunately many of those visitors aren't thinking about safety when they get on and in the water.

There's no question, for example, that wearing a life jacket can be a matter of life or death. So far this year, the park has recorded nine drownings where personal floatation devices were not worn. Victims ranged in age from 23 months to 49 years of age.

The park has used traditional outreach efforts to educate the public about life jackets, such as school water safety programs, the park newspaper and lakeside bulletin boards, but Leslie Paige, the park's Creative Services branch chief, said it has always been tough to reach 15-35 year olds.

Reaching Out to the Electronic Generation

The staff hopes social media, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, can help get the message out to that age group.

In an effort to educate visitors about the importance of lifejackets, the park's Creative Services Department has produced three safety videos in both English and Spanish based on actual events that have occurred on the area two major lakes over the past 20 years. The videos were posted to the park's YouTube page on October 4, and you can view them at this link.

"As a non-profit government agency, social media has greatly expanded our ability to reach the public," said Paige. "If these videos save one life, we have succeeded."

She has been sharing interpretive information on the park's Facebook page since July, and since that time, user interactions have increased 600 percent. The page has nearly 2,500 fans and reaches 30,000 people per month. Additionally, 2,400 people follow the park's tweets on Twitter.

Videos Share Three Different Scenarios

The public service announcements focus on three scenarios, each of which illustrates a tragedy that could have been easily prevented. Each begins with on-screen text advising viewers that the content is "based on actual events" and "some scenes may be disturbing." By current Hollywood standards, the videos may be pretty tame, but the story lines and images are compelling.

"Know Your Limits" teaches teens to use a life jacket before swimming out into the lake. The water can become deep quickly, overwhelming even good swimmers.

"Watch Your Children" reminds parents that floatation toys like beach balls and rafts are not safe on lakes. Within seconds, a ball can float a child past his or her comfort zone before a parent realizes the child is gone.

"Learn to Drive Your Boat" not only emphasizes the importance of using a life jacket while swimming in deeper water, but it also advises people to teach others how to operate a boat, so they can help if a rescue is needed. While both pieces of advice may seem pretty basic, both are too often ignored, and the scenes of a wife trying frantically to start a boat while her husband struggles in the water present an important message.

After posting the videos to YouTube, they were shared via Facebook and Twitter. One page follower said: "I just showed this video to my kids. You're saving lives with your videos."

The videos were produced at Lake Mead NRA thanks to a $10,000 grant through the National Park Foundation 2012 Impact Grants Program. Lake Mead's Visual Arts Specialist Andy Cattoir produced the original soundtrack and edited the video, and the actors were played by park staff and volunteers. Las Vegas Boat Harbor and Lake Mead Marina also made donations to this production.