The NDPA: Working to Prevent Drowning

A year ago, the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA) found itself with just three weeks to transition its national conference to a virtual event, one of the first national conferences for the aquatics industry to make that transition and on a very tight timeline. The second virtual conference took place March 29 to April 1, 2021, online again but with far more time to adjust to that reality. Like many organizations that host regular in-person events, NDPA is planning to continue the virtual offering, but it's also adding a second event to its roster, according to Executive Director Adam Katchmarchi. While the National Water Safety Conference is focused more on education, "the Drowning Prevention Symposium's focus will be much more on policy, legislation and advocacy," he said, "and it's meant to bring people working in their individual silos together for information sharing. Our goal is to get people talking about what's working and what isn't."

And there's definitely plenty to talk about. While data on drownings in 2020 will not be available for some time, the alliance has begun analyzing state-level data and taking anecdotal information into account, Katchmarchi said, "we're expecting an uptick in backyard pool drownings with young children."

Because so many commercial pools did not open for the 2020 season, consumers flocked to backyard water features, as anyone trying to buy a backyard pool last summer likely remembers, and with parents at home and distracted by work, "practicing more passive than active supervision," Katchmarchi said, he started trying to "raise the alarm bells" early on.

"The fact is that if our traditional aquatic facilities do not open again this year, people are going to continue to purchase these backyard water features and go to undesignated swimming areas—somewhere where there's not the typical safety parameters like lifeguards and access to water rescue," he explained.

The NDPA puts heavy emphasis on proper safety for at-home aquatic features, including proper barriers and multiple layers of protection. A resource center on the website—free to parents and caregivers—provides guidance for those who want to recreate in the water at home.

Lifeguard training and staffing is another industry-wide, pandemic-driven challenge. "I give credit to the national agencies for making it possible to work and train in a COVID environment, but we'll have to face the fact that a lot of lifeguards didn't receive their usual training last year," Katchmarchi said.

Lifeguard staffing was difficult before the pandemic, and now with many of those lifeguards likely finding work elsewhere, it's possible that the problem will only be exacerbated. "The one thing I would encourage facilities to be cautious of is we're starting to see the increase of new lifeguard training programs that can be totally virtual," he added. "Don't take the easy way out. We need to make sure they have the proper training."

"I am personally very concerned that we may be on the verge of seeing our drowning rate increase for the first time in a really long time," Katchmarchi added. "We've kept it steady for the past 20 years, but I am quite concerned that if we are not extremely vigilant about our next steps and how we approach this from the water safety community, this could turn into a really big problem."

To help, the NDPA will continue to do what it always does—inform and educate. To aid in that effort, in the summer of 2020 the alliance launched a comprehensive resource center on its website, which includes not only all of the organization's own resources, but also member-submitted resources as well. As mentioned, resources for parents and caregivers are free, and professionals also have free as well as paid membership options. The resource center includes a directory of drowning literature, and research studies and reports are indexed and cataloged. The NDPA plans to further expand those resources this summer.

The NDPA is also working with other aquatic nonprofit associations to address recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) that every country develop an action plan to address drowning prevention and water safety. "Work on the U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan started in 2019 and is scheduled to be released in 2020." Professionals across the country are working on the plan's development, all considering the question: "What do we need to do to address drowning prevention and water safety, not just at the national level, but at the community level, the city level, the county level and the state level?" Katchmarchi said. "As we get ready for the rollout of the plan, we have to start preparing ourselves. We need vested individuals at all levels in communities, counties and states across the country who can take on the mission of implementing the action plan in their jurisdictions.

"That's where I'll say it's never been a better time to join," he added.

"I know from a personal level, COVID has been difficult for the aquatic community, and especially the commercial side," Kathmarchi concluded. "Just know that the national organizations recognize that and are doing everything within our powers to assist those at the local level. We're all in this together. Drownings are prevented locally, not nationally, and it takes all of us to make this successful." RM