According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine people on average drown each day in the United States; additionally, 19 percent of children who drown in public pools do so with certified lifeguards on duty.
For the past quarter-century, the most repeated water-safety mantra has been “constant, vigilant supervision.”
However this is a contradiction, for, simply stated, human beings cannot remain vigilant for more than a very brief time. Ultimately, it’s not the lack of supervision that contributes to drowning, but rather naturally occurring lapses in supervision.
While many other endeavors use technology to supplement attention and concentration, water safety primarily relies upon human senses.
But water-safety personnel do have a simple, practical and affordable technology available to them that has gone underutilized for many years. The lifejacket–primarily reserved for use on boats and other small craft–needs to be utilized universally by non-swimmers in swimming pools and water parks.
An appropriately fitting lifejacket can probably “drown proof” every person who wears one. But there needs to be a significant change in the water-safety culture to extend and normalize the use of lifejackets from boats to swimming activities at pools and beaches.
In the summer of 2008, the National Note and Float program was piloted at the outdoor swimming pool at Penn State University with great success. Since then, many aquatic facilities and organizations, such as Winston-Salem, N.C., Upper St. Clair, Penn., and Tucson, Ariz., have adopted the program with positive results.
How Does The Program Work?
First, it is important to understand there are no fees associated with the Note and Float program–it’s totally free. However, wristbands and lifejackets must be either obtained through sponsors or purchased.
While some individuals and aquatic facilities may worry about the cost, it should be emphasized that many organizations and companies are happy to donate lifejackets in return for their logo or advertisement on the back of the equipment.
There is much flexibility in allowing aquatic facilities to custom-fit the program to their specific needs. For instance, if the program cannot be applied to every non-swimmer at a pool, beach or water park, swimmer groups (birthday parties, school groups, church groups, etc.) should be targeted first, due to the fact that more than 50 percent of all drownings at guarded aquatic facilities occur during group functions.
The second priority group is children under age 7 because they are the highest risk in terms of age group, and they are unable to protect themselves.
Here are six simple steps to initiate the program at your facility:
1. Test all swimmers in shallow water before allowing them to use the facilities. Register all non-swimmers, and give each person wristbands and properly fitting lifejackets.
2. Give parents, guardians and non-swimmers written and verbal site-specific water-safety instructions. Also provide information about swimming lessons at the facility for the non-swimmers. Many facilities that have initiated the program have also noted a corresponding increase in swim-lesson enrollment.
3. Mandate that supervisors must be within an arm’s reach in the water with the banded non-swimmers wearing lifejackets. Supervisors should be at least 16 years of age. Non-swimmers must remain in designated shallow-water areas.
4. Non-swimmers between 7 and 12 years old must wear an identifying wristband and lifejacket, and must also be supervised, but supervisors do not necessarily need to be within an arm’s reach. Depending on the facility, they may be able to access deeper water.
5. Anyone wishing to access deep water without a lifejacket must pass a swim test established by the facility.
6. Use signage as well as written and verbal instructions to stress the importance of lifejackets. Emphasize that wearing a lifejacket is just as important for non-swimmers as wearing a seatbelt in a car.
Distractions are commonplace. With the popularity of handheld technology, supervision may become even more compromised in the future. Although some critics suggest that the use of lifejackets will lead to a sense of false security and overconfidence, both on the part of non-swimmers and supervisors, drowning in a lifejacket is almost impossible.
Before initiating the program at your facility, consider the following:
• Promote and market the program in advance so the rationale for the program can be fully explained and questions answered.
• The worst-case scenario for the program is running out of lifejackets. Every attempt must be made to have more than an adequate supply for individuals of all ages and sizes.
• Colorful vinyl or plastic-covered lifejackets last longer, and are easier to maintain than older, more-traditional fabric-covered lifejackets.
This program will not only protect non-swimmers from drowning, but it will also allow supervisors and managers of aquatic facilities to sleep better at night.
Dr. Tom Griffiths is the President of the Aquatic Safety Research Group, LLC, providing educational materials and programs to reduce aquatic risks and hazards. During his 40-year career, he has written several textbooks, produced videos and written hundreds of articles. He also serves as an Expert Witness in aquatic litigation.
Rachel Griffiths, a communication specialist, is a research assistant with the Aquatic Safety Research Group. In addition to maintaining the website, she also assists Clarion Safety in placing and promoting their program throughout the country.
For more information, visit www.aquaticsafetygroup.com.