Kevin Johnston understood the importance of aquatic education from day one as a lifeguard in Spokane, Wash. “I made a rescue on my first day,” he says. “I understood it was my responsibility and that’s probably why I’ve taken such a much more passionate [attitude] from that point forward. I was able to take the training and put it into practice, at 18 years old.”

Since then, the now 41-year-old aquatics professor at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho has taken his experience and built on it, on the job and in the classroom. Today, he’s trying to hammer home the message that drowning is preventable.

Already, Johnston is known for his work on the Encyclopedia of Aquatic Codes and Standards, a document chock-full of codes, guidelines and how-to’s in aquatic management. He’s trained operators in 20 states and gives lively lectures on pool operations and safe waterfront settings. He also gives workshops on risk management by re-tracing legal cases and educating attendees on learning from the mistakes others make over and over again.

“We want to make sure we don’t have those mistakes happen in the future,” he says.

Through research, Johnston is investigating why submerged victims are more often discovered by patrons and not by lifeguards. According to Johnston, four out of five submerged victims are found by patrons.

“There’s never [been] an education program on that fact,” he says. But Johnston wants to change that. He believes the strategy is two-fold. First, educate the parents on supervising their kids better and how to recognize when a child is in trouble, not just playing. Second, he put up posters with strong messages in public areas, such as the locker room, to teach patrons.

One message idea: “The kid playing dead on the bottom of the pool may actually be dead,” Johnston says. The message, he says, should be just as strong as that. “We want to come up with some really strong posters that are downloadable on the Web to post in locker rooms. We need to do this or we’re going to continue to have the same level of drowning rates.”

In addition, he’s studying why the state of Idaho, where he works, has the fourth highest drowning rate per capita, considering it’s fairly rural. What he’s found so far is that rural areas have more natural settings and fewer opportunities for swim lessons.

From this, he’s looking at the bigger picture — at who, where, and how people are drowning, and how to start preventing those deaths from happening. He says until the aquatics industry starts to understand why people are drowning, the rates will continue to increase. “To me, it’s another means of continuing my career in the water safety field of having a mission to save lives — and that’s the greatest academic endeavor we can have.”