NDPA In The Media

Original Article: The Miami Times   |   By: Johania Charles

Preventing Summer Fun from Turning into Drowning Deaths

Though Miami’s large bodies of water – especially its beaches – are one of many reasons tourists flock to the Magic City, they’re also likely why Miami-Dade County leads the state in drowning fatalities.

With summer fast approaching and following the recent drowning deaths of 13-year-old twin brothers Andrew and Alex Paul in a Miami-Dade lake, drowning prevention advocates and county officials say they will stop at nothing to increase water safety this summer, including respectively launching the national #WaterSafetyChampion campaign and a countywide SPLASH initiative.

The campaign, created by the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), will educate parents and caregivers on multiple evidence-based drowning prevention strategies. It also includes a partnership with an unnamed children’s swimwear designer to create hang-tags with water safety information.

SPLASH – which stands for Safety, Prevention, Learn2Swim, Awareness, Saving Lives and H2O – is a comprehensive effort between the county’s Drowning Prevention Coalition; Fire Rescue; Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces department; and the mayor’s office. The initiative includes an awareness and educational component and also provides training opportunities and increased access to swim classes.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava holding a press conference May 19 at Oak Grove Park, one of several Learn2Swim program sites, to announce the SPLASH initiative. (Johania Charles for The Miami Times)

Approximately 3,572 people drown in the U.S. each year, nearly 900 of whom are children aged 0 to 19 years old, according to the Children’s Safety Network. Given the history of racial segregation at public pools and beaches and an inherited fear of water, the fatality rate is no better for Black children, who are three times more likely to die by drowning than white children, a YMCA 2021 report revealed.

“This is really a call to action,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava at a North Miami Beach press conference to announce SPLASH. “During the summer months, sadly, we know the rate of these terrible tragedies only increases, but the good news is that these deaths and near drownings are preventable. The key is water safety and education and making swimming lessons a priority for all of our young ones.”

Drowning is the leading cause of death among children 1-4 years of age and the second-leading cause of accidental death among those 5-14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Miami-Dade County offers swimming lessons through Learn2Swim at various public pools year-round for $10-$60 per session. (MiamiDade.gov)

As was the case in the high-profile drowning death of Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett’s 2-year-old daughter in a family pool earlier this month. Afrobeat star Davido – known for hit singles “Drogba (Joanna),” “If” and “No Competition” – also lost a child in a drowning incident last November. His son was 3 years old.

“Drowning risks go back up when children hit their late teenage years,” said Adam Katchmarchi, executive director of NDPA. “We usually see a spike around the age of 15, like what happened with the twin brothers, and about 80% of victims are male.

“Our campaign is really based around what we hear often from parents who have lost children to drowning, which are the words ‘I didn’t know.’ There are a number of recommendations to help reduce the risk around water but one thing we’ve come to realize is that the general awareness of the risks and proper safety steps are lacking in the general population.”

Risk Factors

The alarming rate at which drownings occur across the nation boils down to the following risk factors: lack of swimming ability, proximity to bodies of water, lack of supervision and lack of barriers limiting access to water.

According to the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, about 80% of young drowning victims are male. (PoolSafely.gov)

“There is no one single solution that is going to prevent drowning,” said Katchmarchi. “It really is a multitude of prevention strategies we refer to as the Five Layers of Protection. And you integrate all those five layers together, you can really reduce the risk of drowning substantially.”

The Five Layers of Protection, the backbone of NDPA’s summer campaign, are barriers and alarms, supervision, water competency, life jackets and emergency response preparedness. Implementing the first layer would look like installing a 4-foot fence around the perimeter of a home pool, as recommended in Miami-Dade County, using self-latching gates, installing a pool alarm, having floats and life rings nearby, and using compliant drain covers.

Additional safety measures outlined in the remaining layers include having children within arm’s reach in a pool, bathtub or other body of water, and achieving water competency skills like staying afloat, knowing how to enter or safely exit the water, and understanding how to safely assist a drowning person.

“That people who have lost a child to drowning were simply bad parents couldn’t be further from the truth,” added Katchmarchi, emphasizing how 70% of drownings occur during non-swim times. “Drownings can happen in as little as 30 seconds and can be relatively silent. We want to make sure everyone has basic abilities in the water, which is different than learning to swim. Do they have the basic capabilities to either tread water, stay afloat or get to a safe area of rescue?”

Acquiring those water competency skills can be as simple as parents seeking out a nearby swim lesson provider or program. But that option may not be as readily accessible for low-income families who can’t bear the cost of lessons.

Swim safety obstacles

While NDPA’s awareness campaign focuses on educating parents and caregivers on a national scale, Miami-Dade County’s SPLASH tackles obstacles on a local level that may prevent parents from implementing the five layers of protection or similar water safety practices.

“Seventy percent of African American children, 60% of Hispanic and 40% of Caucasians children have little to no swimming ability,” said Jim O’Connor, Miami-Dade Parks’ aquatic region manager and the Drowning Prevention Coalition co-chair.

O’Connor says the county has in previous years tried to address swimming disparities by increasing the number of locations where Learn2Swim program courses are offered. At least 11 Miami-Dade County sites with pools offer swimming classes, including a senior center in Arcola Lakes for adults 55 and older who want to learn.

“Here in Miami-Dade, we have a large number of pools in the African American community,” he explained, urging parents to take classes as well. “We do realize that if the area is economically challenged, that may be something else to overcome. And how do we do that? Our lessons cost, in some areas, $1 a lesson, and we also have a limited amount of scholarships for people that can’t afford that.”

The county-offered lessons, taught by American Red Cross-certified water safety instructors, typically cost between $10 to $60 for 30-to-45-minute sessions.

At private swim schools in Miami, such as Ocaquatics Swim School, classes can cost as much as $112 per month for four lessons.

“We teach water safety tips like ‘Reach or throw, don’t go,’ so if a child’s friend were to fall in a backyard swimming pool, they would reach out a pool noodle or something for the person to grab (but) never jump in,” said Miren Oca, founder of Ocaquatics. “Sometimes it’s not just falling into a pool … but knowing your environment and reducing the risks, like if you were swimming at a beach and there are riptides.”

Oca, who teaches courses for 6-month-olds up to adulthood, encourages parents to apply for scholarships provided either through her school, the county or organizations like the Hope Floats Foundation, to ensure their children’s survival in the water.

“Don’t let the financial realities of swim lessons be a barrier to getting your child in swim classes as early as possible,” said Katchmarchi. “We have a swim lesson checklist that we’ve developed that arms parents with questions to ask when choosing a learn-to-swim provider. One of the most critical questions is ‘What is my child learning in these lessons?’”

“One of the major challenges we’re having, not only in Miami-Dade County but in Florida and nationally, is there are not enough lifeguards and there’s not enough swim instructors out there. We’re roughly 100 lifeguards short of what we were at pre-COVID,” noted O’Connor.

In order to meet the swimming instruction needs of the county, O’Connor told The Miami Times his department will increase the pay for lifeguards and has agreed to cover the certification costs for instructors willing to teach in their Learn2Swim program.

“Too many children in our community don’t know how to swim and that has to change,” said Levine Cava. “With so much water surrounding us here in Miami-Dade County, swimming is a critical life skill for everyone – our children [and] our adults – one drowning is too many.”