As someone who grew up around the waters of Lake Michigan, Bill Ramos has been an aquatics enthusiast for nearly six decades, starting professionally at the age of 18 when he became a lifeguard. But his lifelong passion for drowning prevention crystallized in a single moment in his early 20s when he revived a teen who nearly drowned.
“To have actually given CPR to someone who came back to life was just life changing,” says Ramos, now associate professor at Indiana University School of Public Health — Bloomington, among his many other titles and responsibilities around aquatics and water safety. “Seeing that young man come back to the counter later and thanking the staff — seeing the life back in him — that was something I’ll never forget.”
From that point on, Ramos became laser focused on helping aquatics professionals get the tools they need not only to prevent drownings, but also to know how to use the emergency skills they learn in case the worst happens. He also was intent on helping the general public be safer in the water. Ramos went on to get his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, a master’s degree in recreation, parks and tourism studies, and a doctorate in leisure behavior.
Along the way, he developed a nickname that still defines his life, “Safety Bill.”
“I joke that I’m a pracademic,” says Ramos, who still maintains his American Red Cross lifeguarding certification, even as he sits on the organization’s Scientific Advisory Council and chairs its Aquatics Sub Council. “I’m trying to bring the practical and the academic together to move the needle forward.”
To that end, Ramos’ work as co-chair of the U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan Data & Public Health Surveillance subcommittee ranks as his proudest achievement to date.
In that role, he helped identify critical gaps in drowning prevention, whose solution can spell the difference between life and death. Once, by combing through police reports, he and his team had an aha moment, discovering that grandparents were the second most common guardians during a drowning event after primary caregivers, which led to research about how to close that safety gap.
“The Water Safety Action Plan is such a game changer,” Ramos says. “Can you believe our country never had an organizational plan? Most other developed countries have had one for a long time. To be part of the process to create one here and watch it come to fruition — and know I was part of something that grand — it’s just been amazing!”
Message to aquatics pros
While that plan is rolling out nationwide, Ramos says aquatics professionals still carry a heavy responsibility to keep people safe at public facilities — especially people of color, whom research shows drown at higher rates than others.
“The 10,000-foot view is that drowning doesn’t discriminate,” says Ramos, who holds board positions on both the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the ZAC Foundation. “But within the data, we see that people of color are at greater risk. So, we’re always trying to even out the playing field.”
Among aquatics professionals, Ramos has identified what he believes to be the most common mistake — expecting lifeguards to carry responsibility for drowning prevention. That only comprises one layer of the necessary safety net, he warns.
“Lifeguards are only as good as the management system they’re working under,” he says. “We’re often talking about very young people, and we put a great deal of responsibility on them. They need to be overseen and constantly trained.”
Looking forward, Ramos is seeking ways that aquatics professionals can take the original joy that he felt growing up around water and help instill it in the public — all while keeping everyone safe.
Once again, he consults research to guide his work, which shows that people come to public pools for physical activity, social connection, a sense of community and mental wellness.
“The perfect way to stop drowning is to tell people, ‘Don’t go in the water.’ But water is awesome, and we want people engaging with it,” he says. “It’s something people can use from the time they’re a child to when they’re a senior later in life, and the benefits are phenomenal. Sometimes, I worry that we’re putting the scary message up front. We need to do a better job of understanding what people get from the water — and how to do it safely is the key piece.”
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