Speaking with Kim Burgess about drowning prevention, you’d think the thousands of children who die in the water each year were her own. Burgess, who is drowning prevention coordinator for the Broward County Fla. Health Department, was named executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance last year. She brings a passion to the job rooted in her love of aquatics.
Burgess moved to Florida in 1985 from Indiana. Though she didn’t have much opportunity to participate competitively, she enjoyed all kinds of sports as a child, most of all swimming. She attended Indiana University, majoring in physical education, and has held a number of positions in operations, programming and management at organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
The need for better efforts in drowning prevention hit home when a young girl nearly drowned at a facility Burgess was affiliated with. The girl was a nonswimmer and her mother filed a lawsuit. The lawsuit was ultimately rejected because the facility was able to show that lifeguards were properly trained and responded appropriately. Still, Burgess says the fact that the mother would send her young daughter who could not swim to an aquatic environment alone, expecting guards to ensure the child’s safety, showed her that important water safety messages are not getting through.
Burgess, 51, first got the opportunity to work directly in drowning prevention in April 1999, when she was charged with implementing what is now the Swim Central Program in Broward County, Fla. Swim Central provides water safety lessons to first grade students. Since it began, there’s been a tenfold growth in the number of participant schools, and a noticeable reduction in drownings among students at schools who are part of the program.
Burgess became involved with the NDPA in 2008 and today hopes to take what she’s been successful with locally and implement it on state and national levels. As executive director, she aims to double the attendance at the NDPA National Drowning Symposium and champion efforts that will lead to the ultimate goal of zero drownings. One issue Burgess is looking at seriously right now is the correlation between drownings and child neglect.
“The research that we’re doing down here is to find the root cause of the problem,” she says.“We’ve got to start thinking outside the box.”