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Zero tolerance for drownings and some free swim lessons for kids

Florida may lead the nation in child drownings, but the stats for adults are alarming, too.

Children wander into pools. Drivers end up in canals. Swimmers get caught in rip tides.

Liz Schmidt, director of water safety for the YMCA of South Palm Beach County, is on the front lines. Here’s her take on the latest efforts to stop drowning from happening.

Q: What are you doing to observe National Water Safety Month in May?

A: The YMCA is offering a week of free swimming lessons May 20 to 24 for children 3 to 11 at Y locations in Boca Raton, Boynton Beach and West Palm Beach. You can visit our website or contact me, Liz Schmidt at lschmidt@ymcaspbc.org for free or reduced-cost lessons for groups of children or adults.

Q: Are pool and spa drownings still spiking? A Miami Herald report cited a 20 percent increase in 2017 compared to 2016.

A: Unfortunately, 2017 was a very sad year for drowning deaths in Florida. We’re waiting on official data for 2018. But we’re hopeful the work we are doing is making a dent in the numbers. Just like any epidemic, we see spikes in the data year after year. However, Florida Department of Health data shows the overall trend in the drowning rate is decreasing slightly.

Q: Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death for children between ages 1 and 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one in five are children 14 and younger. Is that what you’re seeing?

A: Palm Beach County mirrors pretty close to the national numbers for children 0-4 years. In 2017, the most recent data we have, the rate was 3.8 for every 100,000 residences. However, we see a significant spike in drowning deaths for teens and adults ages 14 and older. And an overwhelming number of these deaths, 81 percent of drownings, occurred in natural bodies of water such as the ocean, canal or fresh water lake.

Q: Are most child drownings and near drownings in home swimming pools? Is that because children are unintentionally not supervised? What realistically can be done?

A: Most childhood drownings we see happen are in backyard pools where children have wandered unsupervised. 

Parents and caregivers can ensure multiple layers of protection to prevent these tragedies. Door alarms, pool fences with self-closing, self-latching gates are some ways to keep children safe. Families need to talk to their kids about water safety and pools and waterfront rules. Instruct kids to never enter the water without permission from an adult. Do not leave flotation devices in the pool area that may entice children to enter the pool. Enroll your children in swimming lessons at a young age.

Q: Some 64 percent of African-American children, 45 percent of Latino children, and 40 percent of Caucasian children can’t swim, according to the USA Swimming Foundation? Why is that the case, and are there efforts to reach these groups?

A: When we talk with these children and families, we find many do not swim because is not part of their family or cultural tradition. They may have little to no access to swimming facilities. Through our Community Safety Program, we are working with local agencies, churches, schools and neighborhoods. Palm Beach County has more than 2,000 resident and community pools. We bring swimming lessons to them.

Q: The Drowning Prevention Coalition of Palm Beach County says the No. 1 one cause of drowning in Palm Beach County is unsupervised water activity. Is the Y working with this group and how do you prevent duplicating efforts?

A: We work alongside 20 other agencies in a working group called WaterSmart Palm Beach County. We have a goal of zero drownings.

Q: One chart shows adults 45 to 54 constituted 17 percent of drownings between 2011 and 2017. Do you see that here and are there programs aimed at adults who can’t swim?

A: Data in Palm Beach County show the highest rates of drownings are adults. The YMCA is working to provide access to free/reduced-cost swimming lessons for adults. Through a generous grant from Boca Raton Regional Hospital Foundation, we have specific funds to get adults swimming. We are also working to educate communities about rip current safety and awareness and the importance of wearing a life jacket when boating or paddling in the water.

By Marci Shatzman

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