May 022012

The warning has been around since children started dying in pools: Watch your kids around water.

A new program at Phoenix Children’s Hospital called Playing It Safe aims to teach parents what exactly it means to watch kids around water.

“We’re looking at best practices to prevent drowning,” said Tiffaney Isaacson, the hospital’s water-safety coordinator. “The bulk of our incidents are happening with a toddler in their own home with a mother, father or both being home.”

The total number of water-related incidents, including drownings of children and adults, increased in Phoenix to 86 in 2011 from 71 in 2010, according to the Phoenix Fire Department.

Phoenix’s increase is similar to the rise that Maricopa County saw in water-related incidents.

In 2011, there were 179 people, including adults and children, transported to a hospital because of a water-related incident, compared with 140 in 2010, according to Children’s Safety Zone, an organization that tracks drowning statistics in Arizona.

As for deaths, the tally went up slightly in Maricopa County: 49 drownings in 2011, up from from 48 the previous year.

Playing It Safe is designed to meet the needs of busy parents and reached 120 families in its first year.

The program is customized to a short lesson, sometimes lasting only 15 minutes. Isaacson will tailor the lesson based on the audience; it could be a brown-bag lunch at a company or an individual one-on-one session.

“I’m a parent,” Isaacson said. “It’s difficult to find time in your day that is free. What we do is a flexible presentation, a custom plan just for them.”

Sometimes it takes an honest conversation about the parents’ fears and embarrassments.

“A lot of parents don’t know how to swim. That’s troubling if you are home alone with your child and you’re the water watcher,” Isaacson said. “We had an adult fatality where the mother was swimming alone with her child. She jumped in because she thought the child was in trouble and she drowned.”

The program also looks past traditional messages like putting a barrier between the children and water. In most homes, that preference is a pool fence.

During a recent talk at a swim school, a mom and a dad said they felt their pool fence was secure. “But they have patio furniture on the outside of the fence, which the children can climb,” Isaacson said.

She works with Ed Swift of Children’s Safety Zone to share information.

“Kids are too quick. They can get out of your sight in an instance,” Swift said. “A barrier simply gives a parent more time to find the children before they get in trouble. Locked doors, fences and, ultimately, swimming lessons give children a fighting chance. A layered approach is better than one approach.”

Parents have heard the basic message, but the program goes more in-depth. “We talk about who that water watcher should be. It should not be someone who’s had two glasses of wine. If I don’t know how to swim, I should not be a water watcher.”

Isaacson suspects a rough economy might have something to do with the increase of water incidents in 2011. Isaacson saw increases in incidents where a grandparent was watching the child.

“Another thing that happens in a tight economy is you see more families living in apartments,” she said. “A lot of people use the community pool. It’s hard to find your kid among lots of other kids. And it’s difficult to reinforce the idea to keep the pool gate closed to adults without children.”

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