Swim season is here, and while it’s a favorite time for kids and families to start enjoying the Valley’s many pools and water parks, it’s also a time to be hyper-vigilant about water safety.
Melissa Sutton, president of the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona, has comforted too many families who have lost loved ones to drowning. It’s her mission to make parents and caregivers understand the many “layers of protection” that go into preventing such tragedies — including proper adult supervision, adequate (and legally required) pool fencing, and swim lessons that could give toddlers the extra seconds that make a difference between life and death.
“We never know which layer is going to save someone’s life until it does,” says Sutton, who recalls talking to families who didn’t realize a 9-month-old baby could crawl through a doggie door or that an 18-month-old toddler could use his high chair to climb over a pool fence.
Sutton — in this 2017 interview with Raising Arizona Kids — shared what every parent and child should know about water safety:
Why are you so passionate about water safety?
I grew up on Lake Michigan, joined the swimming and diving team in 10th grade and went on to dive in college. My first job ever was lifeguarding. My mother never learned to swim, and I would see the tension in her face when she took us to the lakes in the summer. She made sure we all learned to swim and made us all wear life jackets. That made a huge impression on me. Now, it’s the families I have met who have lost (loved ones to drowning). I must do everything I can to not let this happen to another family.
Is drowning more of a problem in Arizona? The No. 1 killer of children in the U.S. between the ages of 1 and 4 is drowning; Arizona is consistently in the top four states for drownings. Twice as many adults (32 in 2016) drowned in the state than children (16 in 2016) each year.
What’s the most important thing you can teach a child about water safety? No. 1: Always have an adult with you when you’re in or near water. No. 2: Don’t jump in until you learn to swim. No. 3: Wear a life jacket.
Can you explain the Water Smart Babies program? The program enlists the help of pediatricians to educate caregivers about water safety. When a child goes in for either the 9-month or 12-month well visit, the pediatrician hands the family the Water Smart Babies booklet and discusses swim lessons along with the “layers of protection” (against drowning). The booklet has a Water Safety Checklist and information on fencing, alarms, supervision, life jackets, learning CPR and some statistics about the benefits of early swim lessons. The National Institutes of Health found that formal swim lessons reduced the risk of drowning for ages 1 to 4 by 88 percent.
At what age should children should be taught to swim? Certified Water Smart Babies programs teach swimming to infants as young as 2 months old. In order to certify in this program, the lessons must be held at state-permitted facility, be taught in warm water (90 to 92 degrees), include parents in the water with their infant, offer low instructor-to-parent/child ratios, teach in a loving, nurturing manner, teach water-safety skills (not just water acclimation) and have a certified lifeguard present. All children need to be in lessons by the age of 1.
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Ideally, how long should a child take swim lessons? Swimming is a lifesaving skill, so a child should take lessons until mastery. So many other factors play into how quickly a child will “master” swimming (access to water, growth and development, etc.) It’s important that children continue to get as much exposure to lessons and water until well into their teenage years, and even into adulthood.
You’ve said even kids who are good swimmers should wear a life jacket if they’re out of a parent’s reach. Children need to be in a Coast Guard approved life jacket until they’re proficient swimmers — not in “floaties” or “water wings.” Those items are toys, not lifesaving devices. Life jackets are required by law on boats until age 12. We lobby that everyone should wear a life jacket when on a boat. We know that 84 percent of (adult) boaters who drowned were not wearing a life vest. That’s a pretty staggering statistic. Life jackets are also a good choice in open water — especially if there are currents and rip currents. The purpose of a life jacket is it to keep your head buoyant and above the water line so you can breath and call for help.
What’s the proper way to supervise kids in water? When caregivers do take children near or around water, they need to be hyper-vigilant and avoid distractions. Only bring the phone to call for help in an emergency — not to scroll on Facebook or answer emails. Don’t bother with bringing a magazine or book! Either be in the pool with the kids or at least have your feet in the pool. This will help with awareness. Through its partners, the DPCA also provides water-watcher wrist tags or lanyards (for the designated lifeguard) to also help with vigilance and awareness. It reminds the adult that he/she is in charge until placing another responsible adult in charge. Take turns [with] who is on duty — for no more than 15 minutes at a time. This will make time at the pool more enjoyable for all. We also recommend hiring a lifeguard for any pool party — for children or adults.
What physical barriers are needed around a pool to protect kids? A four-sided fence with a minimum height of 5 feet, properly maintained with properly working latches. (Pool owners should also) have a pool or spa cover that doesn’t [collect] standing water and alarms on any doors that lead outside. Lock doggie doors that lead out to the pool. (Visit the Arizona Department of Health Services website, azdhs.gov, for all residential pool-safety requirements).
What’s the biggest challenge to educating the public on water safety? Drowning is silent, but there are many people who think it looks like the Hollywood version with a big splash and calls for help. Drowning can happen to anyone, making it challenging to reach everyone with the [specific] message [that best fits] their situation. Drowning takes lives from all types of people. It looks different depending on your race, gender (more males die from drowning than females), poverty vs. wealth, generational choices (we know that there is only a 13 percent chance a child will learn to swim if their parent did not), access to water, etc.
I’ve read that children with autism are drawn to water and therefore at greater risk for drowning. We’re not talking about this enough. The highest group at risk of drowning is the autism community. With 1 in 68 children being diagnosed on the spectrum, this is a huge concern.
What’s one tip that could help parents? If a child goes missing, people need to search nearby bodies of water first. Typically, the house, garage and front yard is searched first before the pool. [In] 30 to 60 seconds, a child without air will go unconscious, and the clock starts ticking as to their chance of survival. If they are found in under four minutes, they stand a chance, but with varied levels of morbidity. If the caregiver is able to start CPR with breaths, their chance of survival increases. If CPR isn’t started until EMS arrives, the chance of survival quickly diminishes with each passing second.
What else do you want parents to know? Drowning is 100 percent preventable. In less than one minute, lives are devastated and changed forever. The DPCA exists to never have another family experience the needless tragedy of drowning. We understand this is a lofty goal, but if we can reduce this epidemic by even one family, it’s worth everything we do. We encourage people to invite us to speak at parenting and social groups, churches, schools, etc. United, we can prevent the tragedy of drowning.