Feature Article - January 2018
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Water Wise

Aquatic Safety Strategies Help Prevent Drowning

By Dave Ramont

An Ounce of Prevention

The Aquatic Safety Research Group (ASRG), founded by Dr. Tom Griffiths, is "Dedicated to reducing disability and drowning at aquatic facilities while enhancing the swimming experience, through research and education."

ASRG Communication Director Rachel Griffiths feels that drowning is a public health issue that is largely preventable. "It's important to keep educating and training facilities, staff and the public about water safety, because we can make an impact and save lives through empowering lifeguards and the public, environmental changes, and the use of lifesaving devices and technologies," she said.

ASRG teaches Aquatic Risk Management seminars, and Griffiths said the focus is to supplement and strengthen the training and knowledge base of facility staff through materials that are largely not offered in other courses. "Applying research from other fields, such as aviation and traffic safety research can help broaden our perspectives, gain clarity and spark innovation within the aquatic safety field."

Griffiths said there are some simple steps for making venues safer, such as educating parents to watch their children closely, and added that they recommend additional lifelines in shallow water, thereby creating separate sections for shallow, intermediate, and deep water. "Too many children drown before they can even reach the lifeline, which is currently required at the five-foot break point in the pool."

Good signage in warning shapes, colors and symbols is also helpful, according to Griffiths, as it can help increase awareness of the most significant hazards at aquatic facilities. "It also informs the public of their responsibilities to practice safety and keep children safe with what we believe are the four most important messages: non-swimmers should wear life jackets; no diving in shallow water; no long breath-holding; and parents watch your children."

Griffiths added that good signage can also help open communication lines with the public. "For example, they may ask why breath-holding is not permitted or request a life jacket," she said.

In fact, life jackets are becoming more accepted at pools. "At one point in time it was only for boats," Harvey said, "and now it's becoming much more commonplace that they are not only allowed but also more available in pools."

ASRG promotes their Note & Float Campaign, developed by Dr. Tom Griffiths in 2008. The free program helps children become more comfortable in the water while jump-starting the learn-to-swim process. Rachel Griffiths explained how non-swimmers are "noted" with wristbands and required to be "floated" in properly fitting U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets. She added that some facilities wanted the program but didn't have the funds to acquire the life jackets, so they started the nonprofit Note & Float Life Jacket Fund. In just three summers, the program has donated 700 life jackets to 11 pools across nine states. Following implementation of the program, most facilities that received life jackets from the fund have reduced rescues by at least 50 percent and have doubled swim lesson enrollment, according to Griffiths.

Jim Clark, an NSPF Instructor and recreation coordinator for Parks and Recreation in Willoughby, Ohio, explained that Note & Float is an important program as it addresses drowning head-on. "Like bike helmets, seat belts and air bags, life jackets are a great way to address a danger with reliable technology," he said.

When Clark first suggested providing loaner life jackets, he explained, he was told that they give a false sense of security, and so parents might not watch their kids. But he pointed out that they were already rescuing people suffering from a false sense of security. "Do we have some parents zone out and not actively supervise their child while they're in a life jacket? Sure. But I'll take giving an assist to a kid floating in a life jacket any day over having to rescue one who is drowning."

Clark said that the jackets are available at both of their facilities, with staff helping members select a properly-sized jacket that is returned when they're finished. He added that the life jackets, which are utilized by both children and adults, also promote inclusion rather than exclusion.

The city of Bryan, Texas, has also implemented the Note & Float program, and Parks and Recreation Aquatics Supervisor Marty Mulgrew said it's been a tremendous success, and well-received by the community. He likes the program because it does something more tangible than just preaching water safety. "Note & Float takes it a step further and makes non-swimmers easily identifiable at our facility and puts them in a life jacket to keep them safe, along with providing information about why swimming is important," he said.

In Bryan, every child under the age of 12 is tested to identify non-swimmers and swimmers, Mulgrew said. Test results are tracked and provided to each parks and recreation facility. Program information is provided to families in both English and Spanish, and all are encouraged to enroll their non-swimmers in swim lessons. The city received 68 life jackets through the campaign, which spurred an opportunity to purchase additional jackets for all four of their facilities. "We've seen a 60 percent drop in the number of times our lifeguards have to enter the water for a guest for water-related emergencies," Mulgrew added.