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LAKE STATION — Officials with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project said schools today will conduct fire drills, tornado drills and active shooter drills, but there are no schools that conduct water safety education.

Yet, more school-age children may die from drowning each year in the United States than die in fires, tornadoes or even school shootings, they said.

In June 2011, Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, and Bob Pratt, the organization's education director, teamed up and began offering presentations across the Great Lakes area to schools, clubs and other organizations to talk about water safety.

Benjamin, who said he is an excellent swimmer, almost had a drowning accident himself while surfing in Lake Michigan in 2010.

"Prior to that, I had been swimming in Lake Michigan all my life, 49 years," he said.

"I've always been very, very confident about my water skills but yet, I still had a near-drowning accident. That got me to thinking about how many drownings there are on the Great Lakes. Bob and I teamed up and began doing presentations to teach surfers about how to use their surf board as a rescue device. That was the first presentation, and we've done hundreds more educational presentations since that time," Benjamin said.

On Thursday, the pair were at Edison Jr-Sr High School in Lake Station, meeting with students during the day, then the Lake Station community that night.

Pratt said he bets all students know what to do in the event of an emergency — call 911. He said he also is sure students know what to do if their clothes catch on fire — stop, drop and roll.

"But I bet there are not many of you who know much about water safety," he told students.

"It's important not to panic. Flotation is the key," Pratt said.

"Take a nice deep breath in and fill your lungs with air. It will allow you to float better. It will allow you to relax and control that panic and give you a much better chance of survival. In the water, flip over on your back, float and follow. That's the strategy for what to do if you're in trouble in the water."

Edison seventh-grader Halie Meeks said she enjoyed the presentation, and first learned about water safety at the YMCA. "I know it's important. I want to be able to help people when I'm older," she said.

Edison sixth-grader Dakota Sullivan said he can swim a little but not very well. He said the most important aspect of what he learned was that "floating is the key to survival."

Benjamin and Pratt make presentations thanks to a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and an Indiana Department of Natural Resources matching grant. Matching funds for the grant were provided by a grant from ArcelorMittal, in-kind support from coastal communities that have Lake Michigan lifeguards and Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project supporters.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.