Tom J. Griffiths, Ed.D., Aquatics Safety Expert
For more than 50 years, water safety agencies and child safety advocates have been promoting stronger, more vigilant supervision of children by their parents and care givers. Mantras like touch supervision, reach supervision, active supervision, and more have all been used to emphasize the need for constant, vigilant supervision in and around the water. While we must continue to motivate adults to do a better job of watching their children at pools, waterparks, and open-water areas, we must remember adults are prone to human error and are often distracted from their parental responsibilities. Most people do not appreciate how quick, quiet, and subtle drownings are, and as a result, even the slightest distraction can result in a drowning death. In my professional opinion, distractions are now and are going to become even more of a problem in the future due to handheld technologies and social media available. We already have had drownings occur while the “supervising” adult took pictures of the (soon to be) victim in the water and began sending the images to families and friends without noticing their child slipped beneath the surface and drowned.
To reduce child drownings in this country, as we continue to strengthen supervision, I believe we must supplement supervision with other effective drowning prevention strategies.
Swimming lessons are now recommended much earlier than before. In the past, the American Academy of Pediatricians recommended beginning lessons at age four. Recently, this respected group and many other agencies agreed swimming lessons should begin early and occur often in a child’s life. “Mommy and Me” swim lessons are a good start. Life Jackets in ALL bodies of water for ALL weak and non-swimmers can absolutely prevent drowning. We have yet to find a single incident where a child has drowned in a properly fitted US Coast Guard approved Life Jacket. Unfortunately, most people think life jackets are intended exclusively for the open-water and especially on boats. And forget about those colorful floaties! If they are not USCG approved life jackets, they are not intended for life saving purposes.
Through our Note & Float Life Jacket Fund, we have found that in most cases when life jackets are required for children who cannot pass the facility swim test water rescues plummet, attendance increases, and swim lesson enrollment increases. Not only do Note & Float facilities lower their liability, but they also increase the patron’s safety and enjoyment. There are many other ways of preventing drowning in addition to strengthening supervision. Constructing swimming pools with more shallow water areas and less deep-water areas; using drowning detection technologies and alarms; installation of fencing; utilizing pool safety covers, self-closing, and self-latching gates; and so much more. Of course, lifeguards also offer an extra layer of protection, but we must remember, lifeguards are human too. Even the best trained and most conscientious lifeguards tend to see what they want to see and what they expect to see.
So, while we continue to motivate adults to increase their vigilance around the water, we must also do a better job of engineering for safety. In short, technologies are vigilant, humans are not.
Tom J. Griffiths, Ed.D., Aquatics Safety Expert with DJS Associates, Inc., can be reached via email at experts@forensicDJS.com or via phone at 215-659-2010.