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Campaign uses victims' stories to promote seat belt use

COLUMBUS — Public safety officials came together last week in Columbus to promote a statewide seat belt awareness campaign.

The campaign is a partnership between the Nebraska Safety Council and Drive Smart Nebraska and centered around four Nebraska families who lost loved ones to fatal traffic accidents in the past three years.

The goal is to use those deaths as a reminder to all motorists that buckling up can save lives.

“Research has shown that wearing seat belts is the easiest way to ensure that you arrive home at the end of the day," said Mark Segerstrom of the Nebraska Safety Council. "Seat belts decrease fatalities by 45 percent and decrease the chance of injury by 50 percent."

The statistics are not in Nebraska's favor.

Segerstrom said 74 percent of traffic accident fatalities in Nebraska in 2015 were people not wearing seat belts.

Every teen driver killed in a traffic accident in Nebraska last year wasn't buckled up, according to Segerstrom.

“We all have to lead by example,” Segerstrom said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re parents, friends, uncles or cousins, we all have to lead other drivers by example to wear their seat belts each and every time they drive.”

Nebraska has a secondary seat belt law, meaning motorists must be pulled over for a separate offense to be cited for a seat belt violation.

Platte County drivers have a seat belt usage rate of 73 percent, below the statewide average of 83 percent, according to Segerstrom, and ranks in the top five Nebraska counties for fatal intersection crashes.

Of the 119 fatal crashes in Platte County from 1993-2015, 73 percent of the victims weren't wearing seat belts, according to Segerstrom.

The Nebraska Safety Council and Drive Smart Nebraska hope these statistics and the tragic stories of lives lost get more people to buckle up before driving.

According to Segerstrom, an estimated 75 lives were saved by seat belts in Nebraska in 2015.

“Let’s remember those we have lost and always buckle up and ask all other passengers to buckle up, as well,” Segerstrom said. "Your family loves you and wants to see you at the end of the day.”

During last week's event, Platte County Sheriff Ed Wemhoff said this mentality starts with adults.

“Youth are a product of their environment,” Wemhoff said. “If we as parents buckle up then our kids are more likely to.”

The statewide seat belt campaign will include messages on billboards, in movie theaters and radio, newspaper and social media ads.

State offering incentives for prison workers

LINCOLN — To address staffing issues, hiring bonuses will be offered at Nebraska’s two largest prisons and incentives based on years of service will be paid to workers in Tecumseh, the state’s prison director announced Monday.

Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, said as of Monday all permanent staff at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution will receive merit-based incentives determined on their years of service.

Also, he said, the first 100 new hires at Tecumseh and the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln will receive a $2,500 recruitment bonus paid out quarterly over the course of a year.

"These initiatives represent an innovative approach to compensation that invests in our people at our facilities with the greatest needs,” Frakes said.

He said they will use available funds "to address our agency's recruitment and retention challenges."

Overtime, especially mandatory overtime, has been a serious challenge facing prison staff, Frakes said, calling it a "significant issue" for Tecumseh and the State Penitentiary.

Frakes said recruiting new staff at both of the prisons will reduce the need for mandatory overtime.

He said every vacancy the agency fills and doesn’t have to staff with overtime saves $13,000 per year. Over the course of a year, staffing essential posts with overtime at Tecumseh costs nearly $1 million more than if the vacant positions were filled with full-time employees.

Frakes said they'll also look to reduce costs and reallocate funds to pay for these new initiatives.

He said Nebraska is one of many states nationally facing challenges in staffing prisons.

Tecumseh has struggled with recruitment and retention since it opened, Frakes said. But this summer, the number of vacant positions has made it challenging to operate the facility "the way I want to be able to operate it," he said.

At the same time, he said, there has been a noticeable uptick in turnover at the State Penitentiary.

"We saw two issues that we needed to speak to and address as quickly as possible," Frakes said.

He said they will be able to assess within the first three months if the turnover and vacancy rates are improving. He'd like to reach a 10 percent vacancy rate for protective-custody staff.

Frakes said maintaining normal operations there is challenging with staff vacancies near 30 percent, driven by the high rate of turnover.

Prison staff at other facilities, like the Lincoln Correctional Center, which is fully staffed, could apply for the merit-based incentive if they transfer to Tecumseh. It also rewards a core group of good employees already there, he said.

Staff with at least one year of employment and up to 10 years or more with satisfactory performance would get a 2.5 to 10 percent incentive.

"To me, this is really exciting. This is a chance to let Tecumseh be everything everyone wanted it to be when it was built," he said.

Frakes acknowledged that the merit incentive could create frustration with staff at other facilities, but they've got to prioritize.

"We've got to address our greatest need," he said.

Right now, they've been asking staff at the Work Ethic Camp in McCook to work weekends in Lincoln and staff in Omaha to help out at Tecumseh.

"It's also ultimately beneficial to all employees," Frakes said, adding it's a chance to show how compensation approaches can be effective in addressing recruitment and retention.

"We're going to take full advantage of that," he said.


County FSA holding election

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (FSA) county committee election process has started for Colfax County.

The 2017 election in Colfax County will be conducted to elect a representative for Local Administrative Area 2, which includes eligible farmers and landowners in the townships of Shell Creek, Wilson, Midland and Maple Creek.

The approved nominees for election in this area are Jeff McAfee from rural Leigh and Brian Mastny from rural Howells. Write-ins of eligible producers will be accepted. County committee election ballots will be mailed to eligible voters on Nov. 6. The last day to return completed ballots to the Colfax County USDA Service Center is Dec. 4.

FSA county committees are a link between the agricultural community and USDA. County committee members are a critical component of FSA operations. Committees should be comprised of members who reflect the diversity of producers involved in production agriculture in Colfax County.

For more information, visit or contact the Colfax County FSA office at 402-352-5200.

Nebraska residents describe chaos during Vegas shooting

Bart Robbins knew the pop-pop-popping wasn’t fireworks when he watched Jason Aldean’s band run for cover.

And when he watched a woman just a few feet away collapse with a bullet wound to her head.

“It was just chaos everywhere,” Robbins said. “I can’t even describe it.”

The 36-year-old Lincoln man and his wife, Lindsay, were spending Monday afternoon at the MGM Grand, watching the news and waiting for their flight home. From their room, they could see the broken, 32nd-floor window at the Mandalay Bay, from which a gunman had sprayed the concert with rifle fire.

Robbins’ voice was hoarse, just above a whisper. He’d had little sleep. He wasn’t sure how he was handling what had happened.

“I can’t get the images of the bodies out of my head, people’s families. I don’t know how I am. I don’t think I’ve quite processed it yet.”

The couple arrived in Las Vegas on Friday, with his brother and three friends. They attended the Route 91 Harvest Festival concerts Friday and Saturday, and were about 10 rows back from the stage when the shooting started Sunday.

They hit the ground and sought cover beneath tables and under the stage. He tried to stay on top of his wife, to protect her from the bullets.

“It was pop-pop-pop. It was full-on automatic. He was just spraying us. We were like ducks on a pond.”

The gunfire seemed to last for half an hour. They didn’t know where the shooter was, or if there was more than one. At some point, the shots seemed to get louder, as if the shooter was inside the concert grounds.

From beneath the stage, they were evacuated to safety between tour buses and semitrucks.

“We saw people laying on the ground, it looked like they were passed out but they were dead bodies. There were people giving CPR everywhere and there was blood everywhere.”

They ran to the Tropicana and took a walkway to the MGM. They were at the hotel bar, trying to make sense of what was happening, when a rumor spread through the room: The shooter was on the loose at the MGM.

They took cover again. “People at the bar ducked down and took off,” he said.

Robbins and his group found an employee elevator, which they took up to their room. And then they took in strangers from hotels that were locked down: three people from San Diego, and a mother and daughter from Michigan. They had 11 people in their room, he said.

At some point, Robbins looked down.

“And my feet were covered in blood.”

* * *

A family from Adams is thankful to be alive after a weekend getaway to Las Vegas turned to horror as a gunman opened fire on a country music festival.

Jason Aldean was the last performer to take the stage at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Sunday when shots rang out.

In the crowd of more than 22,000, approximately 50 yards from the outdoor stage, Travis Buhr, his wife Kelly and twin 14-year-old daughters were among the confused spectators not sure if the initial “bangs” from behind them were part of the show. Then Aldean fled the stage as more shots followed.

“A machine gun just went off and 20-25 rounds shot over us into the pits,” Travis Buhr said in an interview on Monday morning. “That’s when everybody just scrambled. I grabbed my wife and kids and took off running.”

The family was staying at the MGM Grand, roughly a mile north of the Mandalay Bay, where authorities said 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on the concert crowd from a room on the 32nd floor.

The family fled to the north on foot to the Tropicana, a resort hotel between the concert area and the MGM Grand.

There, they hid behind large rocks in the pool area until it was safe to move on.

“We were running toward our hotel, and you just couldn’t get through,” Buhr said. “They were locking doors on hotels and everything just stopped. About halfway to our hotel we took probably seven or eight people and climbed behind rocks. By then the traffic was pretty much stopped. Taxis weren’t taking anybody. They told us to get to our rooms.”

Buhr said other people climbed trees, hid in cargo containers, anywhere possible to find cover.

The Buhr family was up all night and had planned to fly back to Nebraska Monday, but was debating renting a car and driving instead.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Travis Buhr said. “We just want to get out of here.”

Buhr said nobody in their immediate area was hit by gunfire.

“We didn’t see anybody injured and I’m glad we didn’t,” Travis Buhr said. “When we were cutting through the vendor area there was a blood trail. I don’t know if someone got cut while running or what. People were knocking each other over, jumping fences. It was complete chaos.”