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Feature Article - January 2019
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On the Front Lines, Making a Difference

Grassroots Efforts & Technology Aim to Prevent Drowning

By Dave Ramont


Water safety awareness and drowning prevention efforts have come a long way in the past generation. But those who work in the aquatics field know that there is still much work to be done to get drowning statistics even lower. Drowning is still the leading cause of accidental death among children under 5 years old, the second leading cause for children 14 and younger and the fifth leading cause for all ages in the United States. About 10 people drown each day across the country. And, for every fatal drowning, another five patients will receive emergency room treatment for non-fatal drowning, with 50 percent of these patients requiring long-term care.

And research reveals disparities in swim education: Approximately 65 percent of African-American children, 45 percent of Hispanic/Latino children and 40 percent of Caucasian children have little to no swimming ability. Additionally, almost 80 percent of kids in households with incomes less than $50,000 have little to no swimming ability, and children from non-swimming households are eight times more likely to be at risk of drowning than children from homes where parents can swim.

But let's look at a positive statistic: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us that early childhood swim lessons can reduce childhood drowning risk by 88 percent. And while most municipal and private aquatics facilities offer learn-to-swim programs, lately more community grassroots groups are working to bring swim lessons and water safety awareness to everyone, regardless of income, neighborhood or ethnicity.

Getting the Message Out

Some communities are even bringing water safety to the school classroom. The City of Dallas presents water safety education in its public schools, while also awarding 500 to 800 scholarships per year for free swim lessons. Other learn-to-swim programs are following suit, offering both "wet-side" and "dry-side" water safety education.

The Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition (FWDPC) is a community nonprofit organization whose mission is to prevent fatal and non-fatal drownings in the Fort Worth, Texas, area and beyond. Formed in 2012, the group wanted to address the community's drowning statistics, which they deemed unacceptable, since their county consistently ranks in the top three Texas counties for total and per-capita pediatric drowning deaths.

The FWDPC is comprised of concerned citizens along with groups including the Apartment Association of Fort Worth, TCU Swimming, Fort Worth Parks and Rec, the Fort Worth Fire Department and the local YMCA. They supply resources and expertise to provide affordable drowning prevention events at various locations across Fort Worth. When the event venue is a pool, both drowning prevention and water safety instruction are offered. At dry-side venues, water safety instruction is emphasized, with participants being encouraged to engage in in-water instruction at a future event. The coalition's volunteer training manual and curriculum are copyrighted, and they provide their replicable model and approach for others to use.

Texas has an abundance of backyard swimming pools, and another mission of FWDPC is to educate parents and caregivers. Pam Cannell, executive director of FWDPC, explained that in north Texas, 60 percent of children who drown are 1 to 4 years old and perish in backyard swimming pools. "This is a result of lack of active adult supervision."

She also said they recognize that there is a lack of access to public swimming pools, as well as affordable swim lessons. There are only two public swimming pools in Fort Worth, which has a population 875,000. "That is where we try to fill the gap with no-to-low-cost drowning prevention and water safety lessons."

Cannell said that more than 90 percent of the coalition's budget comes from donations and grants, with only a small portion being program-revenue-related. She also likes to point out that they also teach adults to swim. "Each adult we get in the pool is a personal victory. Particularly in minority populations, for every adult that learns to swim we are breaking down barriers for generations to come."

She's also encouraged that other community groups are taking drowning prevention measures into their own hands. "From my perspective on the board of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona are creating active coalitions focused on advocacy, education and equipping all community members with lifesaving skills."

The motto of the NDPA is Drowning IS Preventable. They work to deliver drowning prevention programs that are replicable, inclusive and credible. They advise, assist and promote organizations, partners, chapters and members who work to prevent drowning and aquatic injuries, as well as engaging and educating the public. "The NDPA is a convener and thought leader in drowning prevention in the U.S.," Cannell said. She explained that their annual Educational Conference provides an opportunity for those in academia, nonprofit, for-profit and government agencies to come together to learn about the latest research and work accomplished in water safety and drowning prevention.

"The NDPA believes that continually re-creating the same wheel isn't moving us any further down the road when it comes to water safety and preventing drowning," said Adam Katchmarchi, executive director of NDPA. "Our membership is very diverse as we include families who have lost a loved one to a drowning or aquatic incident; education and research professionals who develop, educate and advocate for better ways of educating the public on drowning prevention and water safety; task forces and coalitions acting as grassroots education and advocacy groups on the local and state level; and our corporate partners who are designing drowning prevention technology, creating safer pools and water bodies and innovating future layers of protection that can help save lives."

Katchmarchi is also thrilled to see more groups at the local level picking up the torch when it comes to drowning prevention. "We are seeing this more and more over the past few years. It is fantastic to see grassroots organizations supporting and developing programs in their own communities. We haven't been able to see a correlated effect on the drowning rate just yet, but it takes time to see if this really affects drowning data."