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 drownings.
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 explain why.
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 awareness.
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 NDPA.
To really track the effectiveness of campaigns such as Pool Safely, Burgess said better reporting of drowning incidents is needed.
“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, Pa.
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 consistent numbers.”
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.