Keeping our kids safe in the water

Posted on Thursday, August 08, 2013

Consumer safety commission launches drowning prevention campaign

By Nick Sortal, Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE - South Florida has caught the eye of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and that's not a good thing.

It's because we have so many child drownings. The nation's consumer safety agency Monday is using Fort Lauderdale as ground zero for a campaign to reduce pool and spa drownings. It is timed for when most of the country is starting to think about jumping into the pool. The news conference will be held at 11 a.m. at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex, home of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

"Child drownings are tragic, but they are also preventable," CPSC chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum said. "So we must act to change this story. Our campaign has one goal, and that's to reduce drowning."
Tenenbaum said partnerships with the Red Cross, the YMCA, the Home Safety Council and pool builders will present a "single, unified effort to communicate consistently about pool and spa safety.""The power of this campaign is we have formed partnerships to spread the message to consumer industry, media, government and safety advocates," she said.

The focus is children younger than 5. About 300 children younger than 5 drown in swimming pools and spas each year, and 10 times that many are rushed to hospitals after near-drownings, Tenenbaum said.

Florida and Arizona have alternated between Nos. 1 and 2 for child drowning prevalence in the past decade, CPSC officials say.

Already this year, seven children younger than 5 have died in Broward and Palm Beach counties, said Matthew Berman, director of Broward County's water-safety initiative, Swim Central.

"Children under 5 are the ones we're finding at the bottom of the pool," Berman said. "We have to do a better job with that."

Kim Burgess, drowning prevention coordinator for the Broward County Health Department, said having the CPSC fighting a problem that's so prominent in South Florida can only help.

"We do everything we can locally and most communities do, but I can't think of a national campaign that's been done before," she said.

Broward has averaged 10 drownings a year of children younger than 5 from 2005 to 2009, with 88 percent of these taking place in backyard pools. Palm Beach County has averaged 6.5 from 1997 to 2009.

The numbers are much lower for children age 5 and older: about three drownings per year for each county. Water-safety experts say it's because both counties have prevention programs in place.

The Drowning Prevention Coalition of Palm Beach County, established in 1996, helps subsidize swim lessons, distributes pamphlets and partners with more than 15 county pools. Broward in 1999 established Swim Central, which coordinates water-safety classes for kindergartners on school time and arranges for summer campers to take classes at local pools.

About 248,000 children have had water-safety instruction since the program began, Berman said.

In Palm Beach County, more than 5,000 children ages 3 through 17 have taken water-safety lessons since the coalition began, manager Anna Stewart said. The coalition has a much smaller budget than Swim Central, she noted.

"We focus on kids who otherwise can't afford swim lessons on their own," Stewart said.

The CPSC campaign is funded out of a tragedy: In 2002, Virginia Graeme Baker, the 7-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker, drowned in a spa suction-entrapment accident. In 2007, Congress passed the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, mandating new requirements for public pool and spa safety, including an $8 million public education campaign.

The CPSC also chose Fort Lauderdale because it's in the home area of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who wrote the Virginia Graeme Baker Act. Wasserman Schultz was a state representative when she helped fund the start of Swim Central, and as a state senator in 2000 she successfully fought for legislation requiring all new residential Florida pools to have a safety feature making them less accessible.

Nick Sortal can be reached at or 954-356-4725.

Drowning safety

  • Teach children water safety and swimming skills as early as possible.
  • Make sure children are in the pool only if an adult is present.
  • Have a fence around the pool and keep it closed. Install alarms on all doors leading to the pool and keep the doors locked.
  • Consider, if there is a party with several adults and children, alternating the duty of "water watcher" among adults.
  • Learn CPR.
  • Keep a phone near the pool in case of emergencies.

Compiled by Nick Sortal

More information

In Palm Beach County, call the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Palm Beach County at 561-616-7068 or go to
In Broward County, call Swim Central at 954-357-7946 or go to