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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."

Technological Innovation

New drowning detection technologies are also being introduced, and while developers are not suggesting that these innovations replace lifeguards, they can add another level of protection.

Katchmarchi is excited about the possibilities. "While not all of these technologies are new, we're seeing an increased push for technology to supplement and support drowning prevention and water safety efforts. The NDPA has embraced this new focus and strongly encourages future innovation."

He knows there's likely to be concern and apprehension, and for good reason, but feels that some of the new technology on the market is pretty amazing. "With that being said, I want to remind everyone that there isn't one single cure for drowning. We need multiple layers of protection in place to ensure a safer experience for everyone." Katchmarchi does believe that some new technologies can make water safer, and thinks it will be interesting to see if facilities fully embrace them. "I would encourage facility managers to have an open mind and do their own research."

One company that formed in Italy in 2005, beginning as a community-based effort to address the alarming number of drownings in public pools, offers an underwater monitoring and advanced warning system designed to enhance aquatic safety and lifeguard operations. Simply put, an underwater camera system and artificial intelligence (AI) software, capable of monitoring hundreds of swimmers in the water, detects potential submersion risks in a matter of seconds, notifying lifeguards through wireless smartwatch and handheld technology.

Robert Thurmond is the company's U.S. marketing and sales manager, based in California. "At the risk of being overly technical," he said, "the system scans every swimmer in a pool to analyze and determine if there is a potential risk for extended submersion underwater. Keep in mind that a submersion incident can become a drowning event in as few as 20 seconds."

Thurmond goes into the technical details of the system's workings, then sums it up this way: "[It] gives advanced warning, accurate positioning and real-time video of an active threat before an incident can become a drowning."

Thurmond said they've been focused on partnerships with progressive organizations and facilities that understand that aquatic safety and drowning prevention is being transformed by technology. "Our biggest challenge is that end-users need more information about drowning detection technology—not just our solution, but all technologies. We expect 'smart' products at home and at work, but in the U.S. our pools are remarkably underserved by safety technology."

Interest in the system is pretty evenly distributed between public and private installations, according to Thurmond. "I think part of the reason is because the range of aquatic activities and features being offered is getting more and more dynamic. Some municipal pools look and operate just like waterparks, but what they all share in common is the need for additional layers of safety without having to increase staff." He added that their two newest installations in the United States and Canada are both in public pools, servicing hundreds of users each day.

Founded in 2009, a Swedish company offers another pool safety and drowning detection system where swimmers are monitored through wristbands that detect possible drowning by monitoring the pattern of abnormal depth for too long a time. The wristbands send an alarm that is picked up by sensitive receivers in the pool and distributed to sirens, lights, pagers or radios, depending on configuration and operator's choice. So if a user stays too deep for too long, the drowning detection system will immediately alert lifeguards, allowing for immediate rescue in case of drowning.

Based in Connecticut, CEO Jamie Goetsch agrees that the adoption of pool safety technology in the United States has been slow, but believes that the tides are shifting. "The general awareness and advantages of adding a reliable layer of safety based on technology has been growing significantly. We see much more interest and traffic at trade shows and have opened discussions with many more potential clients."

Goetsch said that each client facility decides how they'll utilize the system based on their particular needs. "Of course, children aged 1 to 5 are at greatest risk statistically and are typically users of the wristband. However, many of our clients offer, or in some cases require, all pool users to wear the wristband. We are currently experiencing an increase in drowning events in the senior and baby boomer demographic, so that population is often keenly interested in using the wristband. One example is Europe's third largest waterpark, where the wristband is supplied to every guest at the entry point."

The wristbands can also be equipped with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags, allowing for integration with other systems. The wristband can then be used for door access, locker and safety deposit box "keys" and cashless payments of concessions and other products. "When there is an existing RFID system, or plans to implement RFID in the future, we can smoothly integrate drowning detection as an additional component of the RFID investment," Goetsch said. "Many facilities, however, are primarily focused on providing the safest possible pool."

A Little Help From Your Friends

USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport of swimming in the United States, promotes the culture of swimming by creating opportunities for swimmers and coaches of all levels, as well as selecting and training teams for international competition including the Olympic Games. The USA Swimming Foundation is the philanthropic arm of USA Swimming. Their Make a Splash initiative is a water safety campaign that aims to provide the opportunity for every child in America to learn to swim, regardless of race, gender or financial circumstance.

Through Make a Splash, the Foundation partners with learn-to-swim providers, community-based water safety advocates and national organizations to provide swim lessons and educate children and their families on the importance of learning how to swim. Since 2007, the initiative's Local Partner network has grown to more than 800 programs in all 50 states. Through these partners, kids from ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged communities receive the opportunity to enroll in free or reduced-cost swim lessons. To date, the Foundation has awarded more than $5 million in grants to aid Local Partners in their efforts to provide swim lessons to all children, regardless of their ability to pay.

Local Partner grant recipients are chosen based on their project goals and financial stability, their ability to serve a large and diverse population and their demonstrated partnerships with other qualified organizations. Tina Dessart, Make a Splash program director, said that they like to influence populations where they see lower levels of swimming abilities. "We go out into communities and try to work with providers in specific areas where we see high drowning rates, not necessarily specific to ethnic communities. Drowning rates are drowning rates, so we really want to target those areas and be able to provide services to any of the children in those areas."

The Local Partner swim network is quite diverse. "They're American Red Cross and YMCA, they're private for-profit swim schools, they're Boys and Girls Clubs—really anyone and everyone who is a swim lesson provider is for the most part eligible to become a Local Partner," Dessart said. "And that means that we've vetted their program that ensures best practices and quality safety standards."

Dessart said that a parent can go to the swim lesson finder on the foundation's website and if they see the Make a Splash and Foundation logo next to a provider's name, they know the program has been vetted and given a stamp of approval.

Dessart pointed out that water safety education is one component and swim lessons are another. "While the swim lessons themselves are a great resource, there are a lot of people who for one reason or another may not participate in swim lessons, and while we need to encourage them to do so, if we can just get the basic water safety education to them then it's one more level to keep them as safe as we can."

As far as more grassroots groups coming on the scene, Dessart thinks it's great and said they work with those groups as well. "We have many partners across the country who aren't specifically swim lesson providers, so we would call them task forces or local drowning prevention coalitions. We provide resources and materials to them as well so that they can really get out there and educate communities on all aspects of water safety. What we do then is connect them to the swim lesson providers in those areas, too, so, they can share the message."

Last year, the Make a Splash program reached its goal of serving more than a million kids and is on track to exceed its goal again this year.

In the Trenches

One group working in the local trenches is the nonprofit Howard's Hope. The organization was established in 2014 by Steve Reeves and his wife Stacy after they witnessed the near-drowning of their 4-year-old daughter several years earlier. That experience led them to realize just how common juvenile drownings were, and they decided to dedicate themselves to combatting the problem.

Through Howard's Hope, they created the Flying Fish program, which provides economically disadvantaged youth access to organized swim programs, since Reeves realized that certain populations had higher drowning rates. "There are many causes attributed to this, but one of the main ones is the children never had any formal swim lessons and don't know how to swim."

The Flying Fish program partners with aquatics facilities across Tennessee, and is free to children from economically challenged households. To determine eligibility, an application is required, which can be found at the Howard's Hope website. "We currently work with the campus recreation departments at University of Memphis, Middle Tennessee State University and University of Alabama in Huntsville," Reeves said. They also partner with city aquatics facilities in other Tennessee regions, including Nashville and Chattanooga, as well as one in Hot Springs, Ark.

Participating facilities market the program to their communities, and Reeves said facility operators have been very supportive, realizing that there's a great need for this type of arrangement. "To them it meets several goals: It gets non-swimming kids into organized swim classes, and it generates revenue for their facility. Remember, Howard's Hope doesn't 'provide' swim lessons, the organization 'funds' swim lessons."

The Flying Fish program does have a few corporate benefactors, including some local United Way agencies, but Reeves said it's still a challenge to operate on a shoestring budget, even though they're an all-volunteer organization. "We had a very successful fundraiser concert in 2016, but have not had one since. However, we do continue to receive support from private citizens from across the country." But the program has proven to be a success, with more than 1,500 children served by the end of 2018. In 2019 they hope to expand into Kentucky and beyond.

Another weapon in the drowning prevention battle is the good old life jacket. More pools are allowing them and even encouraging their use, maintaining their own supply of U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets and requiring non-swimmers to wear them. This helps kids feel more comfortable in the water, and many facilities have reported that once they incorporated a life jacket program, pool rescues decreased and swim lesson enrollment increased.

Cannell feels life jacket use is imperative, especially there in the Fort Worth area where temperatures get high and people flock to open water, since there is a lack of public swimming pools. "We distribute life jackets at the end of each of our programs. The Fort Worth Fire Department Rescue Dive Team talks to our students about the necessity of wearing life jackets in and on open water prior to properly fitting each student with their individual Personal Flotation Devices (PFD)."

She said that of the 118 drowning deaths in Texas last summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 79 were in lakes. "These folks would not have perished if they were wearing life jackets."

Dessart also feels that there's a critical need for life jacket use, and learning about proper wear and fitting, especially in parts of the country where there's a lot of boating and other lake activities. "So we definitely see our swim lesson providers providing that education both to the children and their parents."

In addition to his duties at NDPA, Katchmarchi is the aquatics director at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), where they offer swim instruction as well as lifeguard, lifeguard instructor and water safety instructor courses to students and the community. He points out that there are many passionate professionals working on the front lines of drowning prevention. And he says that while they always encourage facility managers to meet all their applicable standards and regulations surrounding their operations, they also encourage them to look at how they can make a larger impact.

"Don't be afraid to ask yourself how you can make your facility safer for all your guests, clients and staff. Additionally, I encourage aquatic facility managers to get involved with local drowning prevention efforts if they haven't already done so. Drowning doesn't discriminate," Katchmarchi said. "We have so many experts on water safety in this field. Donít be afraid to go out and share your expertise with your neighbors."

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