Record-breaking temperatures this April have signaled an early start to pool season. While water fun is a summer ritual, it can also lead to avoidable calamity when children are left unattended around water.
But the danger could be worse when an adult is casually supervising.
Drowning is the leading cause of death for children between 1 and 4 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly all of those tragedies — 88 percent — happen with an adult watching, experts say.
“Supervision is the main reason for drowning accidents,” said Jim Spiers, president of Stop Drowning Now. “They’re not actively supervising and paying attention.”
For Jenny Bennett, a founding member of Parents Preventing Childhood Drowning, the issue is personal. Bennett’s son Jackson drowned in the family’s backyard pool when he was just 18 months.
Bennett, an emergency room nurse in Texas, has made it her mission to educate as many parents as possible about the danger. Her organization encourages parents and caregivers to learn CPR and first aid. Install fences with locking gates around pools. And give children swimming lessons by certified teachers.
“Say a child is fishing with grandpa and they fall in a pond or lake,” Bennett said. “Teach a child to roll and float on their back so they are able to breathe and call for help. Children under 4 are not able to tread water, so teach them the swim-float-swim sequence so they can float and breathe.”
New York state law generally requires every pool to have an audible alarm and be enclosed by a fence with locking gates. County, town and even villages often have additional safety requirements.
“While town public pools have well-trained lifeguards keeping people safe, residents must also be wary of the dangers surrounding private, personal pools,” Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin said. “A lot of our pool safety rules translate to personal pools — no running near the pool. No diving in the shallow end. And for children, swimming with adult supervision is an absolute must.”
As a board member of the New York Water Safety Coalition, Spiers advocates for statewide and even nationwide initiatives. Currently, the coalition has four bills up for consideration in Albany. One bill — S.3608 — would require parents of a newborn to watch a video explaining the dangers of drowning for infants and young children before they even leave the maternity ward. The video would be in addition to the required material educating parents about shaken baby syndrome.
The state Senate bill has three co-sponsors, as well as a companion bill in the Assembly.
Another bill being pushed in Albany by the New York Water Safety Coalition would designate state money to provide swimming lessons to children in urban areas. The coalition is working with organizations and municipalities in the Rockaways and throughout New York City, in addition to several other states.
“The most unfortunate statement I hear is parents who say they didn’t think it could happen to them,” Spiers said, “or they just didn’t know.”
What experts want parents and caregivers to remember about water safety is that simply being present while kids are swimming isn’t good enough. An adult must actively watch the water, Bennett said. That means refraining from alcohol and drugs, staying off a cell phone, and not engaging in small talk at gatherings.
“These children are not being neglected in the vast majority of cases,” Bennett said. “There is simply a lapse of supervision. It only takes 30 seconds for a child under 30 pounds to drown. They inhale water, lose consciousness, and in only a couple of minutes, brain death occurs.”
An adult should be designated as the “water watcher” around pools, Spiers said. That person does not take their eyes off the water for any reason. And if a child does go missing, don’t waste time looking in safer places like under the bed or in a closet.
“If you do have a pool and a child is missing in the house, check the pool first,” Bennett said.
Spiers and Bennett both emphasized that when a child drowns, there is almost never a loud indication to alert adults. If an adult is in the house, “watching” the pool from the kitchen table, they may not realize there is danger.
“It’s not like in the movies,” Spiers said. “Drowning is a silent killer. They can’t speak or call for help.”
More safety tips are available through a number of online resources, including StopDrowningNow.org, ParentsPreventingChildhoodDrowning.com, and PoolSafely.gov.