Feature Article - January 2017
Find a printable version here

Heads Above Water

Lessons, Programs & Technology Help Prevent Drownings

By Deborah L. Vence

Many factors can increase a person's risk for drowning, with lack of swimming ability, no access to swim lesson programs and even parents not knowing how to swim being just a few.

"If a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 19 percent chance a child from that household will ever learn to swim," said Tina Dessart, USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash program manager.

Not only that, "overconfidence in one's swimming ability, alcohol and drugs, not wearing a Coast Guard-approved life jacket in open water or boating situations, and lack of proper supervision" all are risk factors as well, she said.

With so many risk factors to consider, it is that much more important to know the different ways to prevent drowning—with one of the best being to learn how to swim early in life.

"Early childhood swim lessons reduce childhood drowning by 88 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. This is the best way because it also opens the door to a lifetime of healthy activities," said Tom Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF).

Drowning Prevention

William D. Ramos, Ph.D., a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and its aquatics subcommittee, agreed. He said that one of the messages he likes to put out front is that learning to swim is a major component of drowning prevention.

Besides that, he stressed that barriers or fences around aquatic facilities are important, as well as using pool covers and recognizing that and retention ponds or manmade features can be a safety hazard, too. It's important to "make sure we have an inclusive four-sided barrier around," Ramos said.

To boot, supervision is crucial around the water.

Experts agree that one of the most effective products to protect swimmers is the life jacket. There has yet to be a single incident of a child drowning in a USCG-approved life jacket.

However, "the more people you have on hand supposedly watching, often the less supervising is occurring," said Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., president and founder of the Aquatic Safety Research Group, LLC, in State College, Pa. "Although we have been attempting to strengthen supervision around the water, research indicates that 90 percent of drowning victims had supervision," Griffiths said. "We need to supplement supervision with life jackets and drowning prevention technologies …"

Ramos, who also is an assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington and director of the Indiana University Aquatics Institute, concurred. "Lifeguards are trained very well. But, they are not the panacea. They are not the cure-all. A lifeguard is part of the safety team," he said, adding that parents still need to supervise their children when they are in or around the water.

Noting that swimming in an unsafe or unknown area, swimming alone and not having proper floatation are other risk factors, Adam Katchmarchi, president of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), stressed that using multiple layers of protection is the best way to prevent drowning.

"One layer of protection or one method of reducing the risk isn't enough," he said.

For swimmers, some of those layers of protection include learning to swim, swimming when and where a lifeguard is on duty, having a "water watcher" (a designated person who will watch individuals in the water without distraction), wearing proper floatation devices, using drowning prevention technologies, and being trained in water rescue and CPR, among others.