SAFETY FIRST In an effort to make pools safer for young children, many North American aquatics facilities have implemented policies that assign color-coded wristbands, or neck bands, to indicate visitors’ swimming ability. (Photo courtesy The Redwoods Group)

Making pools safer for young children has been at top of mind for many aquatics professionals this summer. A lot of the buzz has been about policies that assign color-coded wrist- or neck bands to young visitors based on their swimming ability.

Proponents say it’s a way for staff to quickly identify those who can or can’t swim, and know which pool areas they may access. While not a brand-new idea, it certainly seems to be catching on in many North American cities.

So it is that you’ll often see youngsters wearing brightly colored bands -- red for nonswimmers, green for swimmers, and yellow or orange, depending on the facility, for those who either need to be tested or whose limited swimming ability requires extra vigilance from lifeguards and caregivers.

“Note & Float” is an example of such a program. Piloted in 2008 at Penn State University by Tom Griffiths, founder of the Aquatic Safety Research Group, it takes age and height into account, promoting use of color-coded wristbands, as well as Coast Guard-approved life jackets for nonswimmers. Kids wanting to go into deep water (over 5 feet) must pass the facility swim test or wear a life jacket.

“We know a lot who like that color coding [on wristbands] …,” said Rachel Griffiths, communication director at State College, Pa.-based ASRG, which provides water safety and risk management programs and services to clients in the USA and internationally. “It gives a situational awareness at the entire facility – it’s an extra layer [of protection.]”

Over in Ontario, Canada most public pools now use such wristbands. “Visually, it’s easier for the lifeguards,” Julie Dawley, program coordinator of the Tillsonburg Community Centre, told the Tillsonburg News, adding, “If I see a little red-band by himself and there’s no parent in sight, I know that child can’t swim ... [and] needs to be with their parent, and I can make sure they get back there.”

Meanwhile, “Test, Mark and Protect,” the brainchild of The Redwoods Group, has been implemented at many YMCAs in the United States. It debuted in 2012 after a five-year investigation of drowning incidents by Morrisville, N.C.-based TRG, an insurer and risk management consultant.

The policy recommends testing young children’s swimming skills; marking them with color-coded neck- or wristbands according to ability; and protecting them by giving swim lessons and calling for close adult supervision. The firm also advocates life jackets for nonswimmers.

It’s hard to tell which band is more effective, Gareth Hedges noted. “I know some facilities use wristbands; some use breakaway neck bands,” said TRG’s senior associate general counsel and aquatics consultant. “Personally, I think the brightly colored neck band is easiest to see because hands and wrists are often under water.”

Old enough?
Another safety concern this summer is whether facilities should raise the minimum age for a child to be at the pool without an adult during open swims.

A tragic incident that played a key role in this discussion was the drowning death of a 10-year-old boy in June. It led the Cincinnati Recreation Commission to raise the minimum age from 7 to 11 at local pools.

In some areas, the minimum age is set even higher. At many aquatics facilities from Massachusetts to Florida, it’s age 12. And some South Carolina homeowners associations favor minimum ages ranging from 12 to 14.

Then there are facilities that offer a “swim alone” test to decide if youngsters may swim without adult accompaniment. For example, at a city pool in Ontario, Canada, the minimum age is 10, but children ages 7 to 9 wanting more independence must pass a test in which they swim the width of the 20-meter pool using a front or back stroke, without stopping or touching bottom.

Of course, many other programs are in place to protect children at commercial pools, but aquatics professionals will always be trying to make things safer.