On a bright Florida evening, Jody indulged in a phone conversation with her 16-month-old son’s father while out by the family pool. Her hand was only inches from the son’s shoulder. Yet she was distracted just long enough for toddler to plunge head first into the deep water.
Jody responded with a knee-jerk reaction, grabbing her son’s shirt and lifting him back to safety. Yet she stood shaking for a minute afterward, fully aware of the fact that, given a few different scenarios, the outcome might have been different.
“I was standing right next to him,” Jody said, remembering with clarity as if it happened yesterday. “When you have young children, you just can’t be too careful around water.”
According to the Department of Health, drowning can be a silent catastrophe and can happen in a matter of seconds. In the time it takes to answer the phone or retrieve a towel, a child left unattended near a pool can drown.
“Florida loses more children ages 1 to 4 in drowning than any other state. Annually in Florida enough children to fill three to four preschool classrooms drown and do not live to see their 5th birthday.”
That statistic is troubling to Jim Billotte, the Director of Education for Spring Hill Fire Rescue. He therefore works diligently on educating residents about water safety and the importance of creating barriers between children and open water sources.
Pools aren’t the only danger, he said. Children can drown in any body of water as little as a few inches deep. Bath tubs, hot tubs, lakes, creeks, retention ponds are all drowning risks to children who are left unattended.
A collaborated effort to keep awareness constant and at the forefront of conversation will help prevent future accidents, thereby protecting innocent lives.
Constant supervision is the best defense against accidental drowning, the second leading cause of death in Florida for children ages 1 to 4. More people have pools, Billotte said, and a lot of children using them. That combination alone makes the need for awareness and education even more important than ever.
Florida’s Residential Swimming Pool Law, effective Oct. 1, 2000, requires that new residential swimming pools have at least one of the following:
“An enclosure, pool safety cover, exit alarms on doors or self-closing, self-latching devices on entries to the pool. The enclosure must be a barrier at least four feet high on the outside and surround the perimeter of the pool. Gates to the swimming pool must also be equipped with self-closing and self-latching locking devices. The residence may be used as one side of the barrier if it does not contain doors or windows that provide access to the swimming pool.”
Laws alone will not prevent accidental drowning, however.
Therefore, an effort to reduce the number of children dying in Florida from accidental drowning begins and ends with vigilant education, consistent awareness and a commitment from the community to work in a collaborated effort to protect its youngest citizens.
The Florida Department of Health, Office of Injury Prevention, launched a drowning prevention awareness campaign, WaterproofFL, which is a statewide initiative. Through WaterproofFL, the focus is on incorporating “layers of protection,” which includes supervision, barriers and emergency preparedness.
By providing public education, expanding partnerships and utilizing web based outreach resources, the message from WaterproofFL will reach millions of Floridians. The purpose is to make them aware of their role in saving the lives of children when around bodies of water that, while attractive sources of summertime recreation, can prove deadly if precautions are not taken.
“Although we all have a right to enjoy the sun and fun,” the WaterproofFL website reads, “owning a pool comes with responsibilities. So whether you’re a parent, caregiver, neighbor or business, pool safety is everyone’s responsibility.”
WaterproofFL is dependent on the collaboration of several organizations to keep the message circulating through communities and protect its most innocent members.
Billotte agreed that the responsibility belongs to everyone, particularly those who own pools. Fundamental precautions should be in place, he said, like pool fences with latching gates, pool alarms, and reinforced latches on doors and windows.
Pool toys also should be kept away from the edge of the pool. Young children are attracted to bright colors and may try and reach for the items. Ladders for above-ground pools should be kept inside the pool when not in use. A phone should be kept near the pool and all members of the household should be trained in CPR.
Flotation devices also should be kept near the pool, especially if adult members of the household cannot swim, Billotte said.
The Fire Corps of Hernando County offers CPR classes and the local fire houses stock informative brochures about safety, including how to protect your child and others from the risk of drowning.
Water safety training is also a good practice for all children, Billotte said. The local chapter of the YMCA offers water safety classes to children of all ages. And classes are free.
“The Y wants to help (children enjoy summer) safely while still having fun. From Gulf beaches to backyard pools, supervision and skill are key to enjoying the water this season.” Instruction is available for any child in the community, and swim lessons are free.
Billotte, who also is a father, takes a strong role in water safety. When he and his wife added a pool to their home, they were careful to take every precaution. “My daughter was only a year old,” he said.
They installed a pool fence, alarms, extra locks on windows and doors and made every family member take CPR classes.
Of course he knew none of these efforts would ever take the place of constant supervision while children are playing near water.
“It can take just a second for a child to drown,” Billotte said. “Texting or answering a phone can put the child at immediate risk.”
The startling fact is that any child is at risk. “Unfortunate accidents happen to good parents,” Billotte said.