Last year, 163 children under the age of 15 drowned in pools or spas across the US. The CDC reports that around ten people die from drowning every day. Just this weekend, a five-year old boy drowned in Lowell Lake State Park and his grandmother died trying to save him. Tragic accidents are like this are far too common, with children ages 1-4 most at risk. What's even worse is that of children ages 1-4 who die from drowning, most happen in home swimming pools. For children age 15 and higher, the CDC reports most drowning deaths occur in natural waters. Age isn't the only variable worth considering. African American children between ages 5-19 are 5.5 times more likely to drown in swimming pools than Caucasian children. Overall, 80% of drowning deaths are males.
The risk of drowning extends beyond swimming pools. The US Coast Guard's annual report on recreational boating found that 76% of boating deaths were due to drowning and in 84.5% of deaths the individual was not wearing a life jacket. Operator inattention was the leading cause of boating accidents and was the primary contributing factor responsible for 45 deaths in 2017. Alcohol is the primary contributing factor responsible for the most deaths in 2017, listed as the primary factor behind 102 deaths and 227 injuries in 2017.
Whether you're enjoying your neighbor's pool or heading to the lake, you should know how to identify a drowning person. Drowning is silent and fast and does NOT look like what most people expect. A drowning person is unable to call out for help or signal by waving. A person who is drowning will look like they are climbing a ladder (see the figure to the left from Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project), their mouth will be level with the water, and their head will be tilted back. If they are in a lake, ocean, stream, or other natural setting, they will face the shore. Their hair will cover their eyes but they don't brush it away.
What all adults can do:
- Everyone should learn to recognize the signs of drowning.
- Every adult can take a CPR class, especially one for infants and children. Find an upcoming class near you here.
- Always wear a life jacket when boating. Make sure there are enough life jackets, keeping in mind ages and sizes, for everyone on board and make sure they are in good condition. Life jackets should be accessible and US Coast Guard approved. Read more from the US Coast Guard about how to choose the right life jacket and correct wear.
- Don't operate a boat under the influence and don't let anyone else do it either.
What all parents/guardians can do:
- Educate yourself on the facts and dangers. You don't know what you don't know. Check out SafeKids' report on misconceptions that lead to drowning.
- Start swim lessons. Many children can learn to swim starting at age four, but some can swim even earlier. Worried about costs? The USA Swimming Foundation's Make A Splash program works with local partners to provide reduced cost or free lessons for children. Find options near Fitchburg, MA here. Remember: Children who know how to swim can still drown, so do not rely only on swim lessons. Always supervise your children.
- Do not rely on flotation devices. Flotation devices such as noodles and floats are also not meant to prevent drowning accidents.
- Teach your children about water safety and provide regular refreshers on the rules and dangers.
- Specifically teach your children how to swim in open waters, which require different skills than swimming in a pool. Rip currents, sudden changes in depth, and difficulty determining distance from land are just some of the hazards.
- Practice what you preach. Model good behavior, like always wearing a life jacket, swimming only when life guards are on duty, and your children will follow your lead.
What homeowners' who have pools can do to help:
- Install a very good fence. You're looking for one that is at least 4 feet high and that children can't easily climb. You also want to make sure you can still see the pool clearly from the other side of the fence. Self-latching gates are also recommended but make sure the latch is out of reach for children. Fences should be at least three feet away from the pool itself.
- Remove any outdoor furniture and place it well away from the fence. Anything a child could use to climb over the fence should not be near it.
- Consider a pool cover or a pool alarm as an added security measure.
- Remove any temptations from around the pool. Pool toys are just that: toys. Keep yours safely stored out of sight so you're not tempting children to enter. You also don't want pool toys blowing into the pool where children may try and reach over and grab them.
- Make these practices a routine. Just as you lock your doors every night, make sure you check around your pool for toys, hazards, and so forth. Schedule in a safety check, and it will become second nature.
More information for parents and guardians can be found from the MayoClinic here and the CDC here. More information for boaters can be found from the National Safety Council here.