From an ‘epidemic’ to now: Preventing child drownings in Arizona

Apr 29, 2024, 4:35 AM | Updated: Apr 30, 2024, 8:56 am

Drowning epidemic of 1989 led to many modern safety measures...

A former Phoenix Fire Captain said drowning is an issue that has gripped the Valley for decades. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — This year, 12 people have died in water-related incidents in Maricopa and Pinal counties. Four of those 12 deaths involved children aged 5 or under.

Several of these tragedies have occurred within the last weeks as temperatures increased across the Valley.

With the hottest months of the year ahead, local officials are urging heightened awareness and caution.

The “drowning epidemic” of 1989

Jay Arthur, president of the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona and a former Phoenix Fire Captain, said drowning is an issue that has gripped the Valley for decades. The issue was especially pronounced during the summer of 1989.

“It was basically considered an epidemic,” Arthur said.

There were 243 calls for drownings in Maricopa County from January 1988 through December 1989, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Fire departments in the Valley began to prioritize responding to water incidents in 1989. This move has since became commonplace throughout the nation, Arthur said.

“They created a thing called the SWIM Team, and it stood for ‘Stop Water Infant Mortality,'” he added.

The SWIM Team was a taskforce that brought local fire captains together to tackle the issue of child drownings. That’s where common water safety phrases like “Just a few seconds” came from. It was a common thing first responders heard from parents when describing what led up to water incidents.

“We actually reduced drowning incidents from 103 to 48 in a year,” Arthur said.

That eventually became what is now known as the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona. Its goal is to promote water safety messaging.

Tips to fight the drowning epidemic

To this day, the coalition and local fire departments emphasize water safety prevention, notably the “ABCs” to prevent pool drownings:

  1. Adult Supervision: A sober adult should be with children in the water with the sole focus of watching the swimmers.
  2. Barrier: Pool fences and covers can prevent children from getting into the pool when unattended.
  3. Classes: Young children should be taken to swimming classes. Teens and adults should know CPR. Swimmers who have not taken classes should wear a life jacket.

Arthur believes the “B” of the “ABCs” is something all parents need to do to protect their children.

However, he also acknowledges that fences and other barriers can be expensive and may not always be an option.

“Locks, latches and alarms on your doors are really helpful and inexpensive,” he said.

In other words, lock down any access to the backyard so children can’t get into the pool by themselves. Install locks at a height that is out of reach for children to prevent them from tampering with them.

“It’s not about being a great parent or not,” Arthur added. “When we have multiple kids, trying to feed the family, cook and clean, we divert our attention, and we can’t keep track of everyone every second of the day.”

When tragedy strikes

Arthur emphasizes the importance of swift action in the event of an incident. Drownings can occur within seconds and may transpire without making any sound.

Remove the person from the pool and immediately begin CPR. If this is not done, then the chances of survival are grim, he added.

“We don’t ever want to see a child in a pool when we get there,” Arthur said.

In most cases, first responders arrive after the child has already been removed from the pool.

“You’ve got an emotionally charged scene,” he said. “A lot of times parents not doing CPR; they’re screaming … begging for us to bring their child back to life.”

Performing CPR is crucial as it significantly improves the chances of survival and successful recovery. When administering CPR to a drowning victim, prioritize assisting them with breathing. Arthur advised against focusing solely on compressions.

“If they wake up to a conscious level, are they going to wake up to a viable brain? To where they can function normally for the rest of their life? It’s all about you giving that breath,” Arthur said.

A list of CPR classes offered throughout the Valley is available online.

The city of Phoenix is also offering swim lessons now for $15 at several pools.

KTAR News and Fulton Homes want to remind you that two seconds is too long to take your eyes off kids near water. To learn more about this campaign, visit the website.

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Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

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From an ‘epidemic’ to now: Preventing child drownings in Arizona