Apr 052012

This time last year, Arizona was on a record breaking pace with child drowning cases. It is why KTAR and Fulton Homes has launched the “Two Seconds Is Too Long” campaign earlier than usual this year.

We ended 2011 with a total of 16 child fatalities. As macabre as it sounds, Lori Schmidt with Arizona Drowning Prevention Coalition and Scottsdale Fire said, “Considering we had 20 the year before, we can actually celebrate that we only had 16 last year.”

By early May six children had died in drowning accidents setting Arizona up to expect more than 30 drownings by the end of the year. “We had a very tough Spring and were very scared,” Schmidt remembered, “We want to get an early jump on water safety this year, but unfortunately, we’ve already had four children die in water this year so far.”

If you have a child in your family who cannot already swim the first line of defense is to get them into swim safety classes. “Developmentalists say start when their upright locomotive skills develop,” said Lana Whitehead, President of SwimKidsUSA in Mesa. “But, we start them a little bit younger because we want to get them in loving the water and respecting the water.”

At one of their pools on a Monday morning, seven babies are blowing bubbles, flipping over, and floating. Most are between three and 12 months. Stacy and John McRae are at the pool with their eight month old son, Troy. “We started him at three months, so he’s been coming to classes for five months now,” she said.

The couple deliberately started the program early because, “We read a lot about (swim safety) classes and heard it really helps develop motor skills.”

The infant swimming courses concentrate on both the child and the parent to build layers of protection, “Starting with a fence and a self-latching gate or pool net,” said Whitehead. She also recommends parents take CPR classes and stay current on certification. Another barrier includes what Whitehead calls a “Touch Supervision approach, which means, whenever the child is near water the parent is within an arm’s reach.”

Shasta and Brandon Bear of Mesa were taking their son, Max, to the SwimKidsUSA program when their family dog hip-checked him into the family’s jacuzzi. “It just happened in a nano second,” she said, “Thank God we were there to see it happen and we were there to pull him out in case he wasn’t able to save himself.”

Two years later, Max is now a big brother to his 13-month old sister, Avery. She’s pressing her face against the back door and whimpering to have the same freedom as her brother. There is a latch on the door, an aluminum rod high above her head, and an alarm that chimes each time the door opens.

“Shasta is a model parent,” explained Whitehead, “Who is always hands on with her children’s swim instruction and safety courses.”

When Whitehead hears the Bear family never installed a fence after Max fell in the water two years ago, she begins to worry. “No child is drown proof, no one is, not you, not me,” she said.

After 40 years teaching swim safety and studying child development, she has seen the worst happen to the best of parents. “I believe you’re a responsible parent, but you’re human, the phone rings, you get distracted.”

The Bear’s are divided on whether to put up a fence. “I think it’s unnecessary,” said Shasta, who has faith her daughter will respect the water if she does get outside alone, “Her swim instructor seems to think that she can float on her own, but she’s still vulnerable.” Brandon is literally on the fence, “The way our pool is laid out, ” he said, “to put a pool fence up, will just destroy the back yard.”

“You’re taking a chance. You’re trusting that child is going to make the same decisions when you are not there,” said Schmidt, “If you don’t have a drowning, you’re lucky. Absolutely, 100% lucky.”

Luck may be dwindling as Max deftly takes a broom stick out of the linen closet and marches over to the sliding glass door. “He released the safety latch with the broom handle and Avery was watching his every move.”

Shasta tells KTAR she is confident she can keep an eye on Avery and convinced her safety is a matter of responsible adult supervision.

“I think that (Max’s) knowing what to do, created a false sense of security that they think they’re drown proof and they’re not,” said Schmidt.

Over the past two years of record drowning calls, Schmidt has met with devastated families, “Many of them are responsible parents who tell me their child was out of sight no more than five minutes.” Under water, that tiny amount time is critical she said, “In five minutes, the organs start shutting down. At ten minutes, death is already imminent.”

Given a chance to logically think it through, Shasta and Brandon admit it’s indefensible not to have a fence when their children are still so vulnerable.

Driving her message home, Schmidt asks one last question, “Would you rather have a fence as your barrier or would you rather have police tape around your pool?”

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