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Words have power, and a new drowning prevention effort says that doing away with misleading terminology such as "water safe" and "waterproofing" in swimming and water safety programs is needed to save lives.

Research shows that participation in formal swim lessons can reduce drowning risk by 88%, "so even if a child knows how to swim, there's not a 100% chance" that child will be fully protected, says Debbie Hesse, executive director of the USA Swimming Foundation, the charitable arm of USA Swimming.

And that's true even for the best of swimmers, says Hesse, noting that Fran Crippen, an All-American swimming champion, died in a 2010 open water swimming race at the age of 26.

The use of "water-safe," "pool-proof," and similar terms is often used subtly and with the proper intent, but it's inaccurate and "gives parents a false sense of security that may lead them to stop being as diligent as they should be about watching their children around water," says Jim Spiers, president of the Safer 3 Water Safety Foundation, a drowning prevention non-profit based in Tustin, Calif.

Safer 3 and the USA Swimming Foundation are urging municipal leaders, public health officials, parks and recreation programs and other swim instruction organizations to eliminate the use of such terms because, they say, "a water experience can only be made safer, never completely safe."

In a statement, The American Red Cross says it fully supports the initiative, and adds that "there is always risk around water; the experience can never be 'waterproof.'"

In its new drowning prevention campaign, Red Cross says it "uses terms such as "water safety" and "being water smart" to encourage people to take steps now to become competent swimmers, to know how to make smart choices around the water, and to make sure children in their care learn to swim."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 people die from drowning every day. Drowning is responsible for more deaths among children ages 1–4 years than any other cause except birth defects. Among those ages 1-14, fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death behind motor vehicle crashes.

CDC also reports significant racial and ethnic disparities in drowning rates for blacks and Hispanics compared with their white counterparts, while research shows that participation in formal swimming lessons is much lower for minorities compared to whites.

USA Swimming Foundation research shows that when a parent doesn't know how to swim, "there's only a 13% chance that the children will learn how to swim," Hesse says. "So we encourage every parent to get their child into lessons and to learn themselves."

In addition to learning to swim, there are other important steps to being safer around water, Spiers says, including:

  • Being prepared for water emergencies by learning CPR, first aid, rescue techniques, and having emergency phone numbers easily accessible
  • Ensuring a safer water environment by maintaining proper fencing, gates, gate latches, alarms and other safety equipment.
  • Designating an adult "water watcher" who is focused solely on children who are in a pool, on the beach or near any body of water to ensure constant, attentive supervision.

"Pools are around whether its winter or summer. So are lakes and oceans," Spiers says. "Water safety needs to be a year-round activity."

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