Most seasonal pools are now closed, but those working on drowning
prevention efforts are still on the job.
More than one state saw a record number of drownings during the
2011 pool season, according to reports, and a recent survey
indicates Americans’ ability to swim remains distressingly
low. Now experts are looking at what more can be done to turn both
those stats around.
More than 1,500 were lost to drowning between May 1 and Aug. 26,
according to tracked media reports prepared by Mick Nelson,
facilities development director at USA Swimming, and released by
the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. Nearly 85 percent of the
victims were male, and more than 400 were age 12 or younger. States
including Indiana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania reported record
Experts suggest a number of possible contributing factors, such as
record-breaking heat waves and fewer lifeguards, due to the
economy, but exact causes remain unclear.
Generally, the number of drownings is declining, but it’s
still the second leading cause of death among children ages 1 to
14. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said 4,400 children
5 years old and younger received emergency room treatment for pool
or spa submersion injuries in 2010 — nearly the same number
as 2009. Data from a recent American Red Cross survey may help
Nearly 80 percent of respondents indicated they planned to
participate in a water-related recreation activity during summer
2011, but approximately 20 percent described their swimming skills
as limited, according to the April 2011 telephone survey of almost
1,100 adults (age 18 and older). That includes 3 percent who cannot
swim at all. Additionally, 32 percent of respondents believe having
children wear flotation devices in the pool is safer than
having them at arm’s length.
Greater emphasis on promoting swim lessons is one key factor in
reducing drowning rates, said Dr. Peter Wernicki, chairman,
Aquatics Subcommittee of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory
Council, one of those behind the Red Cross survey.
CPSC’s Pool Safely program and USA Swimming’s Make a
Splash program, two of the largest-ever drowning prevention
campaigns, are both working to address education, and public
Pool Safely has only been in place two years, not enough time to
develop a direct correlation to decreased drowning rates, but since
inception it achieved 100 million “earned media”
impressions and sent out nearly 2 million water safety handouts,
said Kathleen Reilly, public affairs specialist at CPSC. “We
get requests every day for materials,” she added.
The Pool Safely campaign was created to fulfill requirements in the
Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, and as of press
time, CPSC had not received congressional approval for funding for
2012. But “CPSC is committed to continuing this campaign and
continuing to strive for a decline in child drownings” Reilly
said. It also has the support of a number of partners.
“The Pool Safely campaign enabled organizations like the
National Drowning Prevention Alliance to become nationally
recognized,” noted Kim Burgess, executive director of the
To really track the effectiveness of campaigns such as Pool Safely,
Burgess said better reporting of drowning incidents is
“Until we get a national procedure on collecting the data
from drowning deaths, we will really never truly know how and why
that child [or] adult died,” she said.
Earlier this year, Pool & Spa News, sister to Aquatics
International, reported that as many as 10 percent of a
state’s drowning-related deaths may go unreported. Sometimes
such deaths are attributed primarily to respiratory failure or
other complications because they may occur in a hospital days after
the drowning incident.
“I think coroners, medical examiners and epidemiologists ...
should always ask the question ‘Could the victim swim?’
prior to stating ‘drowning’ on the death
certificate,” said aquatics safety expert Tom Griffiths,
founder of the Aquatic Safety Research Group in State College,
Some agencies are taking steps to address concerns regarding the
underreporting of drownings. Programs to encourage better tracking
are under way in Arizona, South Florida, and Dallas, where a team
at the Children’s Medical Center is working to create a more
accurate drowning database.
In Southern California, the NDPA worked with local public health
departments to develop a Submersion Incident Report Form, which is
used by first responders, such as fire departments.
“We noticed that our [drowning] statistics were different
from the California Department of Health’s,” explained
Kimberly Patrick, a founding board member of NDPA.
“It’s a matter of how [authorities] code each incident,
and the SIRF form was the only way we could figure out to get
To ultimately decrease those numbers, experts also point to a
number of operational changes that need to be adopted on a wide
scale. Griffiths suggests the following:
- Require life jackets of all nonswimmers in all bodies of water, not just the open water.
- Redefine water depths using shallow, intermediate and deep water zoning.
- Embrace technology for drowning prevention.
Dan Schechner and Ben Thomas contributed to this article.