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The empty life jacket racks at the Lake Jacksonville concession area show the popularity of the “Kids Don’t Float” program. The program provides free life jackets for parents to borrow and put on their children as they use the lake.

Lake Jacksonville is fresh out of its 18 or so life jackets put up for visitors to borrow and return, said Jacksonville Fire Department Chief Paul White.

The life jackets were added as part of the “Kids Don’t Float” program just before July 4.

“On the July 4 weekend there were about a million kids out there and they were using those life jackets,” White said, emphasizing that a large number of children were on the lake. “After that weekend there were nine missing.”

The life jackets were placed beneath a large sign explaining that use of them was free, but that the life jackets were to be returned the same day as they were used.

White said he and Fire Marshall Dennis Tate have checked back at the lake periodically and recently found every life jacket missing.

“They are being used,” White said. “The good news is no one has drowned since we got the life jackets. Someone might not have drowned just because we got those life jackets there.”

He also said the lake and program need more donations to keep up with the demand for the jackets.

“A lot of times people buy them for kids and kids outgrow them,” he said. “We’ll take used ones. Just drop them off at the fire station and we’ll mark them.”

Tate said the presence of the fire jackets is a necessity for continued lake safety for children.

“It’s always important to have your kid protected,” Tate said. “It’s a safety deal. If anybody out there has any old jackets they’re no longer using, bring them down here.”

The department needs those jackets so it can help keep area children safe as they use the lake, Tate added.

“It doesn’t hurt to help,” he said.

“Kids Don’t Float” was brought to Lake Jacksonville in early July as the first program by that name in East Texas. It was a collaborative effort between the city of Jacksonville and Central Baptist Church to provide life jackets for lake visitors to borrow and reduce child drownings.

Original life jackets were donated by Wal-Mart and Gander Mountain. White also said he expects donations in the future from sporting goods stores in Tyler.

White said he believes the program is working well.

“Every time Dennis and I go up there (to the lake) we’re seeing kids using them. We just keep losing life jackets on weekends when it’s packed with kids,” White said.

He added a possible method to deter future thefts will be someone from the fire department going to the lake every weekend to check on the jackets and lock them up at night and during weekdays.

More life jackets may be present Saturday. White said Thursday he intends to purchase a few for the lake.

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