By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
DORAL, FL – This season is perfect for taking sunbaths and enjoying beaches, water parks, swimming pools, and boat rides. While doing so, we must never let our guard down when it comes to water safety, because this time of the year is highly sensitive to drowning and Florida is one of the most vulnerable states in the country.
According to the Florida Department of Health, this state has the highest rates of unintentional drowning deaths in children under 4 years of age, and in 2013 it was the second in the nation with the highest rate in children between 1 and 14 years.
For Connie Harvey, director of the American Red Cross Aquatics Centennial initiative, that aims at reducing the number of incidents in places with the highest rates, unfortunately, this state is leader in drowning among children mainly because we are surrounded by water.
“The weather is nice most of the year, which makes water plans more attractive for residents and tourists. In addition, many people have swimming pools, and there are beaches, water canals, rivers and lakes everywhere,” says Harvey.
But accidents not only happen in these scenarios. With children under 1 year, the risk starts at home where tubs, toilets, buckets, and inflatable pools can become dangerous places, due to the fact that in less than two minutes and with only one or two inches of water depth a fatality can happen.
Given the importance of this matter, the main recommendation is to never allow unsupervised access to water to minors and to block all containers that may have water inside the house.
“All adults responsible for taking care of children should make an environment assessment to determine what are the main risks and take actions upon that, such as emptying buckets and never leaving a small child alone in a bathtub,” says Harvey.
According to the Water Smart Broward website, when a caregiver has to answer the phone or open the door, he or she must bring the baby alongside while performing these tasks. It also recommends never leaving a small child in the care of another one and having it within arms reach to be able to assist the child in case of falls or slips.
Cautionary measures in swimming pools
In addition to conducting a risk assessment within the house and taking action in this regard, adults who own swimming pools must follow specific guidelines to prevent accidents in children.
It should be noted that no measure is exaggerated when it comes to saving the life of a child. Contrary to popular belief, deaths by drowning usually happen in silence and in just a few minutes. This means that many people who have gone through this situation did not realize what was happening until later when it was too late.
Due to this, Patrick Beason, American Red Cross Territory Aquatics Executive for Florida, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, always recommends parents to search in the pool first when a child is missing.
“In water emergencies every second counts to sustain life and prevent brain damage from lack of oxygen. I know the story of a family whose daughter was missing and after looking everywhere inside the house, the parents found her inside the pool,” remembers Beason.
To prevent accidents like this one, the first step is to surround the pool with a four sided fence so that is completely isolated from the house. This must have a self-closing and self-latching gate and the latch should be out of the reach of children.
“You have to think of all the ways in which a child can get out of the house and access the pool, so any doors and windows that lead out to the pool should have high-up locks out of the reach of children,” advises Harvey.
In addition, it is important to locate alarms throughout the property that activate when someone enters or leaves. “People also should block pet doors because through these a child can crawl into and enter the pool area,” says Harvey.
On the other hand, is key to provide close, constant and with full attention adult supervision whenever children are inside the pool, even if they have swimming skills, and when in a public one, to check if there are lifeguards around.
If so, parents should remain vigilant of their little ones. “Lifeguards are not babysitters or replace parents,” says Beason.
Another recommendation is to make sure that inexperienced swimmers use appropriate safety devices while in the water. In this regard, the Red Cross suggests choosing only U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets, which are also suitable for lakes and the ocean.
“These have a label with the organization’ name, a serial number and come with an information booklet. Are sold in department stores like Walmart or at boating shops, and should be purchased according to the child’s weight,” says Harvey.
On the same note, water wings and circular floats are not safe due to failing at preventing the children from going under the water. “U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets keep their heads and chests above water at all times, while ordinary floats do not,” says Beason, who is concerned that many parents continue to trust them despite not being safe.
These jackets should be used temporarily as a layer of protection while children are learning to swim. “Although they have more freedom to play like that, we do not want parents to rely exclusively on them. Kids must be told that they still need to take swimming lessons,” advices Harvey.
First, no minor or adult is skilled enough to be exempt from having an accident while swimming because anyone can suffer a health complication, such as fainting or a cramp, which can decrease the abilities to swim properly.
However, having a minimum level of aquatic competency can make a big difference. According to the American Red Cross, this is measured by three components: being water smart, swimming skills and the ability to help others in the water.
It is considered that a person is water smart when he or she can make an environment assessment, prevents water access without supervision, swims in areas protected by lifeguards, supervise minors who are inside the water, uses approved life jackets and decides learning to swim to acquire or improve skills.
For the second component, the swimming skills required are: Step or jump into the water over your head, return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute, turn around in a full circle and find an exit, swim 25 yards to the exit, and exit from the water. If in a pool, be able to exit without using the ladder.
“The skills change depending on the environment in which the swimmer is in. This means that what you do in a pool may not be useful for a river, the ocean or a water park. It is important to confirm if we are competent to swim in the area in which we are,” says Harvey.
To acquire these skills, the first step is to find an academy that, in addition to offering swimming lessons, gives its students water safety information.
Once the provider is chosen, parents and caregivers must be consistent and patient because learning to swim takes time. “A set of classes usually has 8 sessions, each of 45 to 60 minutes. I recommend taking several sets throughout the year to keep improving,” says Harvey.
Swimming academies do not discriminate by age. This means that it is never too late to take classes since swimming is a basic skill that everyone should have. In fact, not only children are at risk, but also adults, teens and young people who normally suffer drownings in natural environments such as canals, rivers, lakes, swamps and the ocean.
In open waters apply the same skills mentioned above, although the level of effort is higher in these environments due to external factors such as the presence of animals in the water. “If you do not know what is inside the water or its depth, refrain from entering,” warns Patrick Beason.
Those interested in learning to swim in Miami-Dade County can visit the American Red Cross website at www.redcross.org/take-a-class/swimming/learn-to-swim-providersthat shows all providers with instructors trained by the organization.
Hialeah, Miami Gardens, North Miami Beach and Opa Locka are some of the areas that offer free or very low-cost swimming lessons.