Water safety and drowning prevention: know the facts
Don’t let a day at the beach turn into a summer tragedy
With summer around the corner and many families already planning vacations and weekend getaways, knowing how to keep kids safe near and in the water is critical, as evidenced by the following statistics from NH Water Safety.
•Drowning is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1-14 in the United States.
•In New Hampshire, drowning is tied with motor vehicle traffic deaths for No. 1 as the leading cause of death in children ages 1-14.
•For each drowning death, it is estimated at least 1 in 4 children suffer a serious nonfatal submersion event, many of which leave children with permanent disabilities.
•1 in 5 parents mistakenly think air-filled water wings can protect their child from drowning.
According to experts, though, there are things parents can do to keep their kids safe.
“Supervision is key,” said Tim Wilson, public pool and spa program coordinator with the NH Department of Environmental Services. “It is so easy to be distracted these days with cell phones and other technology. It doesn’t take more than a few seconds for a kid to go missing and drown. Removing those distractions is really critical.”
Karen Jenovese, owner of Swim NH, which instructs hundreds annually with lifeguard, water safety, CPR and First Aid training, said the Granite State’s various public waterways also present other challenges.
“In rivers, the current can take a child away. In lakes, kids are often allowed to swim too far away, so the question becomes how quickly can you get to them?”
It is not just younger or beginner swimmers that should be supervised at all times either.
“Every kid, regardless of age or ability, should be directly supervised at all times,” she added. “Weak or non-swimmers should be within an arm’s reach of a parent.”
In addition to direct supervision, Jenovese urged caution for parents whose children use what is commonly referred to as “floaties.”
“Flotation devices that are not Coast Guard-approved place children into an active drowning position with the head back and the feet down,” said Jenovese, who also founded NH Swim School. “If they fall off or they forget to put them on, those children are immediately in trouble.”
“What we teach through Learn to Swim, which is American Red Cross-certified, is how to have a horizontal body position and how to rotate onto your back,” she said.
Wilson encouraged the installation of safety covers over pools during the winter. He also cited the importance of bottom main drain covers in pools, wading pools and spas, which he described as “an entirely different drowning risk.”
“State and federal laws currently require that all public pools and spas have approved anti-entrapment drain covers properly installed,” he added.
Pool safety covers are an additional safety barrier for kids who may get past a fence, but the main drain covers protects kids (and adults) from entrapment.
“The suction force on a bottom or sidewall drain is very strong,” he said. “The water velocity through the drain cover can suck hair into it, which can get entangled. There are deaths every year, which is why replacing outdated and broken or missing drain covers is very important.”
Fences and gates are also required for public and private pools, although codes may vary by town. In addition to the minimum fence height of 48 inches in some cases and 60 inches in others, gates must only open outward and away from the pool. According to Wilson, gates must also self-close and self-latch.
“The latch mechanism should automatically and securely activate when a gate closes,” he said. “Latch mechanisms must also be located on the pool side of the gate so they cannot be manipulated by young children.”
For Wilson, the key point is to isolate the pool or spa area from other areas.
“Preventing younger kids from unauthorized entry into any pool is especially critical," he added. “It takes many layers of protection and for different strategies to be employed, but drowning is 100-percent preventable.”
Staying safe in the water also means knowing when not to get in it, according to Sonya Carlson, public beach program coordinator with the NH Department of Environmental Services.
“We routinely test public water for fecal bacteria and other forms of bacteria,” she said. “If we detect anything, we place yellow warning signs in plain sight that indicate people should not enter the water. You need to pay attention to them – believe the signs.”
Carlson said parents should also steer clear of any body of water in which geese and ducks are present.
“You probably don’t want to swim there,” she added. “With weaker immune systems, kids are particularly vulnerable. Another thing to keep in mind is that it can also take a week or two to experience the effects of unsafe water – and if you are sick, stay away from the water, too.”
Water clarity is not an issue just related to lakes, rivers, and ponds. Wilson said it also relates to operational, mechanical and chemical shortcomings at pools and spas.
“Dirty cloudy water poses a significant public health threat that can result in immediate closure,” he said. “I have inspected pools and spas of all types in public settings where I could not see my hand 12 inches under the water. If any bather is struggling underwater, there is very little chance of anyone seeing them.”
Carlson agreed and added, “Cloudy water – even if signs are not posted – is an indication you should not enter the water.”
If there is one thing Jenovese would stress regarding water safety above all others, it would be for parents to remove any distractions when near, on, or in the water with their kids.
“In a drowning situation, brain damage can occur in as little as three minutes once submerged,” she said. “What makes it difficult is often times someone in trouble will at first appear to be playing and jumping up and down when in reality they are drowning…You have to watch your children at all times.”
Wilson added that while the public perception is that drownings are violent affairs with lots of shouting for help, arms thrashing, and water splashing, drowning is actually very quiet.
“It’s a set of behaviors known as ‘instinctive drowning response,’” he added. “The main take-home message for parents or caregivers is constant and vigilant supervision.”
Rob Levey is CEO of Exponential Squared. You will find his freelance writing in numerous publications, including Parenting NH.