The basics of personal flotation devices

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Think you know your personal flotation device? You might.

However, according to Kelli Toth of the Alaska Office of Boating Safety, there's much more to these can-be lifesaving devices than meets the eye.

In the wake of recent boating accidents, she and others seasoned in boating and life jacket safety are urging Alaskans to learn how to stay as safe as possible while on the water.

Here are a few tips straight from the experts.

Pick the personal flotation device that's right for you and what you're doing.

There are different kinds of PFD's out there. Pick the one that best suits you. Some things to take into consideration are type of jacket, age, body size, activity and location of activity.

Nick Olzenack, Alaska Mining and Diving General Manager, said the kind of activity someone is doing will be particularly helpful in determining the kind of life jacket a person needs to wear.

A life jacket for a jet skier will be different from a life jacket for someone fishing, which could be different from a life jacket for someone stand up paddle boarding.

Some life vests are larger, bulkier and less comfortable, but provide more security and are more likely to keep your head above water should you become unconscious. At the other end of the scale are teeny tiny ones, even fanny pack style PFD's, that are still helpful but may not be as effective if the user gets knocked out.

No matter the style, all PFD's should properly fit the person wearing them. Size and weight limits are typically listed on a label inside the neck or along a seam of the PFD.

Know the types of PFD's available for purchase.

There are various categories of PFD's when it comes to both activation and location of use.

As for activation, inherently buoyant PFD's will always float, and as such don't require any type of activation in order to function.

Self-inflating PFD's can be manually deployed, or automatically deployed, or both. They all include trigger mechanics, the systems of which can vary.

Automatically deploying PFD's often utilize a type of pin system when it comes to manual deployment. The user pulls a cord at the base of the life jacket, which generally pushes a pin into a pressurized cylinder, releasing carbon dioxide into the jacket and thus inflating it.

As for automatic deployment, the most common kinds include a tab, pill or tiny donut-shaped part filled with a powder that is activated when it comes into contact with water. That in turn triggers the release of the gas into the jacket.

Most inflatable PFD's also have a tube you can blow air into to fill them up if absolutely necessary.

Expiration dates are a thing.

Most jackets don't have an actual expiration date on them, but some do, and need to be checked as often as every few months.

More accurately, certain components of the vest are typically what have an official use-by date. For example, the powder tabs that trigger automatic deployment will have an expiration date, usually printed somewhere on or near them. Carbon dioxide canisters expire too, usually somewhere between one and three years.

At the same time, even if parts - or the PFD itself - don't have specific expiration dates, they do age.

Buoyant materials don't usually lose their buoyancy, so a super basic, inherently buoyant vest would still function, but pieces and fabrics can easily become victim of wear and tear even if they're sitting in storage.

If you notice anything odd - perhaps the fabric of a PFD seems brittle, a closure clip is missing a piece or an inherently buoyant jacket seems to be loosing some of its filling - it may be time to replace a part or two, if not the entire life jacket.

Practice, practice, practice.

Toth said she has long received calls about accidents and what can be done to help avoid them. Recently, she's gotten many more of those calls.

According to her, and other safety experts, the reality is that a life jacket is not a promise of saving your life. PFD's do, however, increase your chances of survival exponentially should some thing bad happen.

But only if you're wearing one and know how to use it.

No matter what kind of life jacket a recreationalist chooses, both experts stress that in terms of survival, "if you're not wearing it, your chances will be much lower," Olzenack said.

There are also lots of different factors to take into consideration.

"Our answer is, take it to the water and test it," Toth said. "Be confident and familiar with your personal gear."

Know your gear, inside and out. Maybe even bring some extras on whatever excursion you're taking, if you can manage it.

You can never be too prepared when it comes to an emergency.

"The more over-prepared you are, the more prepared you are," Olzenack said. "The better chance your have of survival."

The Alaska Office of Boating Safety offers free classes teaching boating safety and life jacket preparedness for people of all ages.

The next class is Saturday, June 24th in Juneau.

Learn more by visiting the Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources Office of Boating Safety website.