Needless deaths continue to shape drowning-prevention conversations

The month of August marks the community efforts of the 19th annual Drowning Impact Awareness Month in the state of Arizona.

Purple ribbons are handed out at city pools and fire departments in an effort to remind children and adults to not let their guard down near water — chlorinated, salted or open.

For more than 30 years, community members, fire department officials and aquatic enthusiasts have fought to bring drowning awareness to the forefront of the minds of Arizona residents.

Methods such as the ABCs of water safety — adult supervision, barriers and Coast-Guard approved life vests and classes — parent education and fence and pool checks are all utilized by the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona.

Records show that drowning is the leading cause of deaths for children ages 1-4, with 99 fatal accidents from 2010-15. For infants under the age of 1, drowning is the fifth leading cause of death with 11 lives lost in five years.

More specifically, from Jan. 1 to Aug. 21 of this year, 40 deaths have resulted from 109 water-related incidents — 29 of which were adults, 10 were under the age of 5, and one was a child between ages 6-10, according to Children’s Safety Zone.

Children’s Safety Zone is a network of public safety officials who collaborate to give a Valley-wide statistic to water-related incidents.

Lori Schmidt

“Drowning Impact Awareness Month is a recognition that drowning is a year-round problem,” said former Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona President, and Scottsdale Fire Department Public Information Officer, Lori Schmidt in an Aug. 22 phone interview.

“Even though kids are going back to school, we still have kids swimming well into October and November. We have pools in our backyard year-round. It’s another push to say, ‘hey, don’t lessen your vigilance when it comes to water safety.’”

Ms. Schmidt’s interest in preventing drownings locally started years ago while she was working with Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and has continued to grow after joining the fire department more than a decade ago.

“I’ve met so many families who have been affected by drowning, I see how much it changes families,” she explained. “This is an event that is 100 percent preventable it is heartbreaking. We all work together to try to keep this from happening to any other families.”

Overall, Ms. Schmidt says the two main challenges that happen that lead children to water is a lapse in supervision, or something is wrong with the barrier.

Parents are reminded to keep their eyes on their children, their barriers need to be maintained after the summer ends, and distractions need to be reduced.

“It isn’t just the immediate family that’s affected,” Ms. Schmidt said. “It’s first responders who bring that kid to the hospital, it effects that neighborhood, that child’s school. The community experiences the losses because of this event. It is a huge ripple in the water, so to speak, and what it really means to our community is devastating.”

The Maricopa and Pinal counties fatal water incidents have ranged from the 40s-60s since 2000, with a high of 67 total deaths in 2004, and a low of 44 in 2013, Children Safety Zone data shows.

Ed Swift, owner and operator of the website Children Safety Zone is a business owner and member of the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona. Over the past 20 years, he has cultivated a volunteer group of local public information officers from Valley fire departments who help gather data.

“I was born and raised here in the Valley, and for most of these years whenever I heard drowning incidents reported, it was only Phoenix,” Mr. Swift explained in an Aug. 22 phone interview.

“As a business person I realized the problem was much more significant than what was being reported. I was working with another gentleman at the fire department and we put together a voluntary network of PIO and fire department people to come up with a Valley-wide statistic. It’s kind of grown into something that’s supported by different fire departments.”

While drowning is a leading cause for childhood death in Arizona, Mr. Swift’s data shows more adults are dying from water-related incidents than children.

From 2000-16, more adult fatalities occurred every year than children or teenagers. In Arizona, after the age of 12 a person is not required to wear a life-jacket.

“We all need to know how to swim, there’s an amazing amount of people in our area who don’t know how to swim,” Ms. Schmidt said of adult water-related incidents. “Dog paddling is not swimming. If they want to go to the lake and that’s all they know, their swimming ability is not where it’s supposed to be. Open water is so different, and there is a huge risk for adults who underestimate their swimming ability and underestimate their stamina in lakes and rivers.”

City of Scottsdale employed 180 lifeguards this summer. (photo by city of Scottsdale)

Everyone learns to swim

The Scottsdale Aquatics Department is actively doing their part to bring awareness to the impacts of drowning. All four community pools handed out thousands of the purple ribbons, and even ran out at some locations, Scottsdale Aquatics Operation Supervisor Sunny Nakagawa says.

Scottsdale has had two adult fatalities from water-related incidents this year, one child incident and three pediatrics-aged incidents, according to Children’s Safety Zone data. Scottsdale’s neighboring municipality to the east, Salt River Fire Department, has reported zero accidents.

Records provided by Phoenix Fire Department, who covers the Scottsdale’s neighbor to the west, the Town of Paradise Valley, show a total of eight drowning incidents since 2012. Four of those were in 2016, records show.

Ms. Nakagawa presented an update on the aquatics program to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission during an Aug. 23 meeting, held at Vista del Camino Center, 7700 E. Roosevelt St.

Overall, the city had nearly 5,000 registrations for swimming lessons at its pools this summer, and is preparing to offer fall swimming lessons as well.

The city’s aquatics department operates four community pools with about 180 total lifeguarding staff. Lifeguards conducted 16 rescues this summer, none of which were life threatening, Ms. Nakagawa said.

The Scottsdale aquatic centers are:

  • Cactus: 7202 E. Cactus Rd.
  • Chaparral: 5401 N. Hayden Road
  • Eldorado: 2301 N. Miller Road
  • McDowell Mountain Ranch: 15525 N. Thompson Peak Pkwy.

The pools are open year-round — with the exception of Chaparral Aquatic Center — and offer spring, summer and early-fall swimming lessons for children as young as six months old, up to adult lessons.

Aquatics education for adults is very important, Ms. Nakagawa says because adult drownings happen all too frequently.

“I think it’s important because everything is focused on youth, and learning to swim as a child, and a lot of adults haven’t had that opportunity,” she explained in an Aug. 23 interview. “A lot of our adult classes are held in the evenings because a lot of them are very self conscious that, ‘I’m a 50-year-old woman and I don’t know how to swim.’”

The adult classes provide a safe-space for adults learning to swim, with a small ratio between the participants and stuff in order to provide attention-needed. Scottsdale offers both an adult learn-to-swim class and a stroke refinement for people looking to improve their skills.

“First day of classes we kind of break it up into who are our true learn-to-swim who have no experience vs, someone who has a basic float and they’re doggy paddling, but they want to learn freestyle,” Ms. Nakagawa said. “I think it’s important to still remember our adults because, yes, adult drownings happen all the time too, and I don’t think they’re the ones to reach out and say ‘I need the help’ or ‘where can I get lessons?’”

The Valley of the Sun JCC, 12701 N. Scottsdale Road, offers Scottsdale children swim lessons in its two heated pools, in addition to offering Masters classes, club teams and water polo. They saw just over 750 swimming lesson registrations this summer, not including their summer camp or early childhood swim lessons, CEO Jay Jacobs said in an Aug. 24 emailed response to questions.

Jay Jacobs

“We offer private lessons for all ages and skill levels, however lessons for children are our most popular,” Mr. Jacobs said. “We use age- and skill-appropriate methods to teach children of all ages to be safe and comfortable in and around the water, as well as to improve their swimming skills. It’s never too early to learn.”

The J employs up to 30 lifeguards during peak season, and utilizes about half of that the rest of the year.

“All of our life guards are American Red Cross-certified and trained in CPR and AED use,” Mr. Jacobs said. “Before hiring any guard, we get them in water and test their skills. Certification is not enough.”

Thus far, The J has not had any rescues at its facility, Mr. Jacobs said.

For Ms. Nakagawa who grew up through the Scottsdale aquatic program, she says she strives to provide the best experience possible for local parents to continue building strong swimmers.

“I grew up in swim lessons, I took lessons through the city of Scottsdale, and you idolize your lifeguards, you’re like ‘oh I want to do that one day,’” she explained.

“That’s really what we try to get people to see — it starts with the parents bringing them into the facility, whatever we can do to have a positive experience, have knowledgeable staff, good lessons, in order to keep them coming back.”

Teenagers 15-years-old and up are eligible to take a 30-hour lifeguarding class, where they will receive certifications in first aid and CPR, and prove they can swim well, retrieve a 10-pound weight from a depth of 14 feet, and tread water without their hands for at least one minute.

“When it comes to going to a community pool, consider the lifeguard as your backup, not the other way around,” Ms. Schmidt explained of trained swimming experts. “You should still keep an eye on your kids. Lifeguards are scanning the water and trained to the best they can — but we need to be more cognizant and responsible for our own children.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable. Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the arrow in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment