A quick chat with a friend. A brief phone call or text. A sudden distraction. In those seconds, someone you love could drown.
For children ages 1-4, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death. It’s also the second leading cause of death for kids ages 1-14, behind only vehicle crashes.
As the weather warms up and more people head to the water to cool off, the risk of drowning increases. That’s why Alabama is one of 39 states to recognize May as Water Safety Month. The campaign is a partnership involving the National Recreation and Park Association, American Red Cross, Pool and Hot Tub Alliance and World Waterpark Association.
The goal of Water Safety Month is to ensure everyone has the knowledge and skills to enjoy the water without worry. While drowning deaths have decreased over the last decade, an average 3,500-4,000 Americans still drown each year. Families are shattered, friends heartbroken and communities shaken by these tragedies.
Yet, people continue to take risks, overestimating their abilities or ignoring the dangers. A survey by the Red Cross found eight out of 10 Americans plan to enjoy water activities this summer, even though more than half either can’t swim or don’t possess basic water competency skills.
David Kalange is a former competitive swimmer who now serves as aquatics supervisor for the City. He’s spent years educating people on water safety and has seen first-hand what happens when the basics are overlooked or ignored.
“Most people can swim just far enough to get themselves into trouble but not far enough to swim back out of it,” he said. “That’s when we get distressed swimmers, and we start having drownings.”
To assess water competency, Kalange said instructors do a series of skills tests in the shallow end of the pool.
“We’ll have them swim twice as far as we think they need to be able to go,” he said. “Often that’s from the end of the pool to the middle and back, without using a lane rope for assistance, touching the bottom or grabbing on to anything else.”
Another potentially life-saving skill? Learning to roll over and float on your back, because that gives you the ability to get air and call for help.
It’s never too early, or late, to start
Swim classes are an effective way to learn these skills. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, swim lessons from a certified instructor can reduce the chance of drowning by 88 percent. The City of Huntsville’s Parks & Recreation Department offers a wide variety of lessons, from parent-child to adult beginner.
“We typically focus on the young, because they are the ones who are most likely to accidentally put themselves in a situation where they can’t get out,” Kalange said. “But swim lessons are vitally important for people of any age, young or old.
“We have plenty of adults, they’re going to see a child or friend in distress in the water, and our instinct is to do whatever is necessary to help that person out. Unfortunately, if that adult cannot swim and the water is over their ability to stand, now instead of having one person in distress, you have two victims.”
Would you recognize a drowning if you saw it?
A common misconception is that drowning is noisy, with lots of splashing and attempts to call for help. It’s not. Drowning is usually silent. Safe Kids Worldwide found, in nearly 9 out of 10 cases, a parent or caregiver said they were supervising the child when the drowning occurred.
“They could be swimming, head above the water, and it looks like they’re in total control and when you turn back, they’re not there,” Kalange said. “It doesn’t happen like we see it happen on TV.”
If you see a swimmer in need of help, immediately alert a lifeguard. If no lifeguard is present, have someone call 911 and follow this Red Cross recommendation.
Reach or throw, don’t go
To reach someone, lie on your stomach and extend your arm over the water. If the victim is too far away, you can extend your reach with a pool noodle, paddle or even a tree branch. If the person is unreachable and there is no life preserver available, look for anything that will float. A life jacket, kickboard, beach ball or empty cooler are just a few examples.
Protect your loved ones
Of course, drowning prevention is the ultimate goal. These simple actions have been shown to reduce deaths:
- Teach children to always ask permission to go near water.
- Remember, lifeguards are scanning the entire pool, not just monitoring your child.
- In group settings, designate a “water watcher,” an adult who agrees to provide close and constant attention to the children in the water for 15 minutes at a time. Take turns with others in your party.
- Never leave a child under the supervision of another child.
- Stay within arm’s reach of weak or inexperienced swimmers.
- Use Coast Guard-approved life jackets for young children and inexperienced swimmers. Water wings are not safe personal flotation devices, can provide a false sense of security and hinder a child’s swimming development.
Ready to dive deeper?
Swimming is one of the most popular recreational activities in the U.S. for good reason. It’s fun. It’s also good for you, providing all the physical benefits of vigorous exercise, yet gentle on the body. Water Safety Month is not meant to discourage anyone from making a splash this summer. Rather, it’s an effort to raise awareness of the risks and how to prevent them.
“We want people to be able to enjoy water in North Alabama, whether it be lakes, rivers, public pools, backyard pools or neighborhood pools,” Kalange said. “We just want them to be able to do it safely.”
If you’d like to increase your skills around the water, we encourage you to check out these summer swim classes offered by Huntsville Parks & Recreation.
The Red Cross also offers a free, 30-minute online water safety course for parents and caregivers. Click here to learn more.