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Feature Article - January 2016

Safe in the Water

Programs, Audits Are Key to Enhancing Aquatic Safety

By Deborah L. Vence


Drowning remains the No. 1 aquatic safety issue, with lack of swimming ability, the absence of close supervision while swimming and the failure to wear life jackets being just a few of the risk factors.

"While we do a relatively good job of keeping our eyes on children of tender years, we often forget the older lap swimmers. Statistics show that the only increase in water-related deaths comes in that older age category between 49 years and 81," said Tom Griffiths, president and founder, Aquatic Safety Research Group.

"I can't begin to count the number of drownings involving lap swimmers. Many of these pool deaths are medically related, but if water enters the lungs in these victims, aquatic facilities are going to have a tough road ahead defending themselves," he said.

Time and again, an assumption is made that someone is watching the water when no one really is.

"Too often, unnecessary drownings and near drownings occur because a parent or adult assumes kids can swim or that someone (lifeguard, other adults nearby or other kids) is watching the water," said Dan Berzansky, owner and president of Premier Aquatic Services, an Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based aquatics service company that specializes in aquatics programming, lifeguarding, and CPR/AED and first aid training. "Most of the time, it's a bad assumption. Once there is an emergency, oftentimes no one around knows how to respond. The delayed response time leads to irreversible damage or even death of the victim."

Once there is an emergency, oftentimes no one around knows how to respond. The delayed response time leads to irreversible damage or even death of the victim.

The issue of supervision, meaning active supervision by people who bring kids to pools, makes up one of two big components of aquatic safety today, noted Connie Harvey, director, Centennial Initiative for the American Red Cross.

"Many adults do not pay close enough attention to the children in the pool," she said. "They rely completely on the lifeguard, but forget that the lifeguards are there watching everybody. It is also the responsibility of the adult to keep an eye on those they brought. Put down your phone, put down your magazine.

"And for the littlest kids and non-swimmers," she added, "the adult needs to be practicing 'reach supervision,' which means staying within arms' reach of the swimmer, especially when he/she is in the pool."

Secondly, not enough people know how to swim well.

"At minimum, people need to be able to complete the sequence of water competency," Harvey explained. "We also need people to become stronger swimmers so that they can become water safety instructors or lifeguards and become the next generation of people protecting lives in and around the water."

Water Safety Programs

That being said, swimming lessons early and often will help to reduce the number of drowning deaths, Griffiths said.

"Selecting Mommy and Me type of programs that do not force water instruction on the young child and educate the parents are best. Safe water play and entertainment in the water at those early ages is preferable to stroke instruction—that can come later," he said.

One of the biggest programs available today to teach water safety comes from the Red Cross, the Learn-to-Swim program.

"Every Learn-to-Swim lesson not only teaches swimming skills, but it has a safety topic integrated into it," said Nichole Steffens, product manager, aquatics, American Red Cross. "So, every time a participant comes for a swim lesson, they're also getting a water safety lesson. And it's not just safety skills such as wearing a life jacket. It's also about learning safe behavior around the water."

The Red Cross also offers Longfellow WHALE Tales, which is a K-6 classroom-based program designed to raise children's awareness of safe behavior in, on and around the water.

"WHALE Tales is a free course that can be taught by any aquatic leader, Red Cross instructor or school teacher. WHALE Tales can be taught without a pool and is a great rainy-day activity for schools, summer camps and during swimming lessons. It is also part of the Red Cross Swim App," Steffens said.

"Finally, I'd encourage parents to download the Red Cross Swim App, which contains tons of water safety content for adults as well as children," she added. "This app was created as a companion to the Learn-to-Swim program (including Preschool Aquatics). It helps keep new swimmers motivated while providing parents the latest in water safety guidance to help ensure families stay safe in, on and around the water. It is not meant to be used at the pool instead of watching your swimmer."

Adam B. Katchmarchi, M.S., EMT-B, vice president of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA) and an instructor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), noted that parks and recreation centers are doing "great aquatic safety programs."

"I talk at different conferences, and I usually ask my audience what has worked," Katchmarchi said. He has discovered that the more attendees reveal and share what their programs are like, the more that other people can learn from that.

He added, too, that water safety programs not only get the kids involved, but the parents as well. The idea is getting parents together and having a lifeguard or aquatics director highlight the points about water safety, provide education for the parents and stress that you still have to watch your kids in the water.

"[Parents] are the first line of defense against drowning. Lifeguards are human. They can make errors. Nothing is better than keeping an eye on your own kid," he stressed.

Programs are available to help understand the risks involved with water activities, such as Safer3, a program that teaches a three-pronged approach and covers the main safety mechanism: recognizing risks associated with water-related activities; implementing strategies to reduce and manage those risks; and responsibly maintaining those strategies.

"The program is designed to teach kids and adults what the risks are, how to reduce/eliminate the risks and how to respond in the case of an emergency," Berzansky said. "There are other organizations out there, but I believe Safer3 is making amazing strides into being a great voice for water safety."