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Safety Advocates Step Up Efforts To Prevent Pool Drownings


For many, summertime means but one thing: Pool time.

Courtney Ford: We're making all kinds of plans to just have all kinds of water fun.

But summer's also the time when 90% of pool drownings occur. Many aquatic experts, lawmakers, and child safety advocates say most cases are actually preventable. And now they're stepping up efforts to put an end to incidents that could otherwise be avoided. KCUR's Elana Gordon reports.

When it's hot outside, and the sky is clear, pools can be very popular places. YMCA Aquatics Director Mark Smith says the outdoor pool off of Vivion Road has anywhere from 2 to 200 people in it per hour.

Smith: There's never a dull moment.

He says a lot of ymca members only swim during the summer months, and that means staff is often out reviewing water safety tips with those seasonals. One of the biggest things, he says, is reminding adults to actively watch their children.

Smith: It's almost like a tug of war and we have a lot of lounge chairs here and a lot of parents try to detach themselves, and kind of let the lifeguards be the babysitters.

Jeff Johnson is with the main paramedic service in Johnson County Kansas. He says serious pool incidents are pretty rare throughout the area, but that he's also noticed a persistent trend.

Johnson: Just looking at the history of drowning over last few years, we probably average 5 or 6 near drownings or drownings a year. And of those, probably the most obvious recurring theme is unattended children.

He says that includes adults that are poolside but aren't paying close enough attention to what's going on. And even though there haven't been any incidents at the Vivion road Y, where there's lifeguards on duty, the facility now requires parents to be in the water with kids who can't swim. Cherie Sage is with the advocacy group, Safe-Kids Kansas, and says the group has started encouraging adults to use special water-watch cards - they're bright orange and blue and can be worn around the neck. But Sage says it's the concept, and not the card itself, that's most important.

Sage: We know that when you have a group of people together, might even be couple of families - that when everyone is watching the kids, no one is watching the kids. So whatever adult that has water watcher card - there job to watch kids in around pool.

Sage also says most pool deaths occur at home, like in backyard pools or those increasingly popular inflatable ones, where adults may not even be aware that a child has gotten in one. She says fencing can reduce drownings up to 90%, but even when someone is watching the water, Sage says there's also a lesser known pool hazard that's led to some tragedies across the country over the years: It has do with pool drains.

Sage: Kids love to play around drains, but it's important to teach kids to stay away from them - they're very dangerous. We've had cases across country where hair becomes trapped in pool or spa drain. Just last year a little girl was unfortunately disemboweled from sitting on a drain.

But a new federal law that soon goes into effect, is finally taking aim at that. It's the first law to address pool and spa safety on a federal level and it requires all public and semi-public pools and spas to be equipped with anti-entrapment systems.

Out at the Trails of Northbrook neighborhood in northern Kansas City, pool manager Wes Detrick says he's been upgrading the some 30 pools he oversees. He unpacks 2 brand new drain covers that he's getting ready to install on the drains at the bottom of the pool.

Detrick: We're just changing the shape on it from something that's flat, to something that's bigger and rounded so you can't get stuck to it.

He checks his oxygen tank, grabs his goggles and gets ready to take the plunge.
After only about 10 minutes under water, he resurfaces.

Detrick: This is forcing Kansas City and other people to become compliant with some kind of federal code, saying this is what's safe, this is what isn't. This is going to prevent drownings, this is going to save lives someday.

The Kansas City Health Department reports that all municipal pools and the majority of other public and semi-public pools in the area have been in compliance with the new standards for some time. The law encourages residential pools to follow the same standards, but it's not required.

Back at the Vivion Road YMCA, just a few miles from the Trails of Northbrook, Drake Ford is goofing off during a swimming lesson. He says he loves being in the water.

Drake: It's fun. Just spinning around and making noise.

And with adults actively watching the pool, which is equipped with a safe drain system, Drake and other children are sure to have a good time there this summer.

Elana Gordon, KCUR news.

Funding for health care coverage on KCUR has been provided by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

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