Officials: Fatal drownings continue year after year in Arizona

A demonstration of the scene of a drowning incident and the severity of the injury and threat it poses to everyone. (Photo courtesy of the Scottsdale Fire Department)

Members of the Scottsdale Fire Department seen here during a 2014 April Pools Day demonstration of the proper CPR technique when a drowning incident occurs.  (Photo courtesy of the SFD)

In Maricopa and Pinal counties three toddlers, two school-age children and 11 adults have died from drowning through Tuesday, June 16.

There have been 60 drowning incidents reported by all Valley-area fire departments so far this year as reported by the Children’s Safety Zone, which compiles, among other things, drowning incidents in both Maricopa and Pinal counties in an effort to gather data on the summertime epidemic.

The Scottsdale Fire Department, through the Children’s Safety Zone, has reported three incidents so far this year resulting in the death of one adult.

The Phoenix Fire Department, which neighbors the city of Scottsdale jurisdiction and includes calls for service in the Town of Paradise Valley, is reporting 20 incidents to date this year resulting in the death of one toddler and three adults.

The ABCs of drowning prevention — a common mantra taught among Valley fire and ambulance entities — hinges on adult supervision, barriers and CPR classes.

Barriers created and the attending of CPR classes are good ways to be proactive, but the most effective manner to prevent child drowning remains adult supervision, Ms. Schmidt says.

Scottsdale Fire Department Public Education Officer Lori Schmidt says the ABCs of drowning prevention remain the first and best line of defense at working toward preventing both child and adult fatal drowning incidents.

Ms. Schmidt serves as president of the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona.

“The No. 1 thing people need to understand is we can prevent drowning so we need to make sure we take those steps to lower our chances,” she said in a June 16 phone interview. “Drowning prevention is a three-pronged approach with the key being adult supervision.”

Ms. Schmidt says adult supervision, barriers to water access and CPR classes for adults remain the strongest deterrent to drowning.

“You have got to put barriers between the kids and the water,” she said. “The third thing is the classes. The caregivers need to know CPR techniques. It is the 30 compressions and the two breaths — push hard to get blood up to the brains.”

While Ms. Schmidt says for cardiac events the compression-only CPR technique is now the recommended technique to get blood moving to the heart, for a respiratory event like a drowning the 30-compression, two-breaths technique remains the best approach.

Ms. Schmidt says she is cautiously optimistic the downward trend of the last three years in terms of drowning fatalities remains constant.

“Two years ago we had an amazing year,” she said of the low fatality rate of 11 in 2013. “Last year, we were very nervous because we were having incidents left and right as early as May. This year we have been fortunate, such a mild six months of the year.”

Ms. Schmidt says on average 20 children and 40 adults lose their lives to drowning in Arizona every year.

“The drowning problem is not fixed. When you look at the drowning numbers you are seeing about 20 kids and 40 adults every year,” she said. “We love our water in this state, but we really need to make sure we are maintaining our barriers and adult supervision.”

Children as young as six months old can learn to swim and survive if he or she accidentally falls into pool unexpectedly, experts say. (Photo courtesy of the SFD)

Children as young as 6-months-old can learn to swim and survive if they accidentally fall into a pool unexpectedly, experts say. (Photo courtesy of the SFD)

Keeping kids safe

Laurie Ball, co-owner of Scottsdale-based Kidtastics, offers swimming classes focused on preventing child drowning.

“We actually don’t own a facility for our swim classes. We don’t teach indoors. Drowning happens at peoples’ homes; in their backyards, which is why we go to peoples’ homes to prevent that from happening.”

Kidtastics, 8485 E. McDonald Drive No.  243, operates in public and private facilities throughout the Valley of the Sun offering programs ranging from dance and gymnastics classes to swim and CPR sessions, Ms. Ball points out.

“I think the earlier you teach them the safety rules, the better,” she said. “But let’s not falsify the experience by saying there is a monster in the pool. There are different ways to approach it. I think people need to be educated better on the right way.”

Ms. Ball says children around the age of kindergarten should be aware of what drowning is.

“At the same time you start to teach your child about looking both ways before crossing the street is the same time you should be talking about safety rules for the pool,” she said.

Ms. Ball says the latest thing she has seen in local homes that’s of concern: The idea that a locked back door — regardless of height of the lock — is a barrier to a body of water.

“I have seen with my own two eyes a child put a chair at the door, unlock the door and open the door,” she said of a recent at-home swim class in Scottsdale. “I would say in Arizona, my biggest concern is the amount of parents that think if they have a lock on the door they don’t need a pool gate.”

Ms. Ball says many homeowners find the pool barrier unsightly.

“You are so liable for that child that has been at your house,” she pointed out. “I think that it is becoming trendy. It’s almost like the people who are selling homes are taking down the fences. I have a big issue with people who don’t have a pool fence; it’s akin to not putting your kid in a seat belt.”

Pool fence requirements are governed by Arizona Revised Statutes with each individual municipality over the last several years rendering its own requirements, according to Ms. Schmidt.

“There is a state barrier law but it has loop holes in there and that’s why our coalition has gone around to the cities and tried to strengthen those rules.”

A typical loop hole, Ms. Schmidt points to is if the homeowner of the property has children over the age of 6 no barrier to a pool is required.

“There were some gives in there, but our goal was getting the barrier in place through ordinance,” she said. “We have seen that is one of the things that we can point to that makes a difference. When we started collecting data 64 children per 1,000 have a drowning incident. Today its eight per 1,000 and those are significant changes.”

A view of the proper barrier that has the best chance of stopping a child from getting access to the pool without adult supervision, adults say. (Photo courtesy of SFD)

A view of the proper barrier that has the best chance of stopping a child from getting access to the pool without adult supervision, experts say. (Photo courtesy of SFD)

Keeping an eye on the data

Since 1998, Valley resident Ed Swift has been gathering data and ever since that time, the same excuses for not taking a proactive approach to prevent both child and adult drowning incidents has revolved around the same mantra.

“It’s obvious what the problem is: Everybody thinks that it can’t happen to them, but the statistics show that they are horribly wrong,” he said in a June 16 phone interview. “When the temperature goes up 5 degrees and have had several incidents there’s a problem.”

Mr. Swift, who owns Tempe-based Swift Office Technologies, created and sponsors the Children’s Safety Zone while serving as a 12-year member of the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona Board of Directors.

“I was born and raised in Phoenix and I would listen to the news about all of these drowning incidents and almost all of them would quote Phoenix,” he said of not having a unified reporting hub where all drowning incident data could be housed an analyzed.

“It was just obvious that the problem was a lot larger than just in Phoenix. I kind of felt like there was a need to have all of the information compiled together to really showcase how big the problem was. It has now been just over 15 years.”

One thing Mr. Swift can point to in terms of impact the data collection has made is more people are now educated about drowning issues.

“We are starting to see more and more drowning instances in the outlying areas because those areas are having more and more population growth,” he said. “And, those are the areas that didn’t get a lot of drowning prevention education — now the message is being pushed to those outlier areas.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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