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April 24, 1999

More than 300 million seconds ago, the public-service campaign "Just a Few Seconds" was devised to stem a devastating springtime spike in backyard pool drownings.

Distributed Valley-wide by our seldom-so-unified media, the campaign emphasized parental supervision as the first and best defense against accidental toddler drownings.

In 1989, the year the campaign was launched, Phoenix led the nation in such tragedies.

In 1990, the rate of pool-related deaths fell by more than half.

Except for an anomalous increase in June and July 1993, the rate of pool-related accidents involving children has never returned to 1989 levels.

In fact, the totals of swimming-pool incidents involving preschoolers in Maricopa County have steadily declined in recent years. In 1996, there were 51 emergency calls to 911 for pool-related incidents. In 1997, 46. In 1998, 44.

In 1989 - the year the "Just a Few Seconds" campaign began - the total was 99.

In 1990, 53.

"Something very dramatic happened to cause the death rate to go down," said Tim Flood, medical director of the Arizona Department of Health Services' Office of Chronic Disease Epidemiology. "I'm confident that most of what we (saw) is a result of the campaign."

The theory was to implant caregivers with a consistent, repetitive message: That "Just a Few Seconds" are all it takes for the small child in your care to find fatal trouble.

The campaign was the brainchild of Steve Jensen, a former TV newsman who was then the Phoenix Fire Department's liaison to the local news media.

Jensen's job was to appear at fires and accident scenes to explain, sometimes on camera, what firefighters were doing. In a late spring weekend in 1989, he was just returning home from one pool-accident scene when a medical helicopter responding to another flew over.

"He came in and said, 'This just cannot keep going on,' " said Linda MacLeish-Jensen, then his wife.

Jensen disappeared into his home office, MacLeish-Jensen said, only to emerge later with the key slogan on his lips.

It was a phrase he and the firefighters at the scene of child drownings had heard again and again from parents. As in, "We only left him alone for just a few seconds."

Jensen's interest in the issue was both personal and professional. Child drownings are devastating to families - many marriages don't survive such a tragedy - but also ravage the firefighters and paramedics who respond to the calls.

Jensen called together some media professionals. Forrest Richardson, an advertising executive, was one. Chuck Alvey, then station manager at Channel 5 (KPHO), was the other. Both were affiliated with Fire PAL, a group of Phoenix Fire Department supporters.

The trio quickly devised a public-service campaign based on the phrase. Flier artwork was designed, video was shot. Within just a few days, the campaign was ready.


By early June, Maricopa County's 1989 child-drowning total stood at 14. The total for Phoenix: 11.

Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini called a news conference at a downtown Phoenix elementary school to launch the campaign. With children arrayed around him as props, Brunacini called the recent rash of residential drownings "the most serious problem the Phoenix Fire Department has ever faced," and likened the crisis to a serial killer stalking local children.

"The killer works in broad daylight and preys on innocent children," he said. "The killer has already struck 47 times in Phoenix since January 1 and has taken the lives of 11 children."

Jensen, Alvey and Richardson worked their media connections.

"Everybody jumped right on it," said Alvey, now an economic-development official in Reno. "That was a no-brainer."

Firemen canvassed neighborhoods, distributing hundreds of thousands of fliers. Local newspapers ran the "Just a Few Seconds" print ads prepared by Richardson. Radio and TV stations ran the public-service announcements produced by Alvey. Media cooperation, as participants remember it today, was near-unanimous.

"Television and radio and print worked together to present a unified message," MacLeish-Jensen said. "Obviously, it worked."

In May 1990, pool-related 911 calls involving small children dropped to eight from the 1989 total of 14. In June, the year-to-year number dropped from 13 to 10. July, 19 down to 10.

Education was the primary focus of "Just a Few Seconds," but the consciousness-raising campaign also pushed many Valley cities to enact pool-fence codes - Flood's "layers of protection."

Phoenix passed its pool-fence ordinance in 1990, requiring 5-foot inner fences or pool covers for all new pools and a retrofit fence in homes with children 6 and under.

Chandler and Scottsdale passed similar pool-fence codes in 1993. Glendale passed a pool-fence ordinance just last year. Tempe still has no such ordinance.

Safety officials, however, say that barriers can be defeated.

The barrier ordinance "is great to have, but it's not a solution to the problem," Phoenix Fire Department spokesman Bob Khan said. "The only solution is supervising kids.

"Kids are so resourceful. An 18-month-old is very mobile. They do what God intended them to do - exploring and learning. They're absolutely fearless, and they don't have an understanding of consequences."

People of all ages drown, in toilets, bathtubs, buckets and ditches. But nearly three-quarters of all water-related incidents in Maricopa County involve children, and the overwhelming majority of those incidents come in backyard pools.

Safety officials publicly voice approval of swimming lessons and CPR training - other pool-safety tactics that get lots of media attention - but stress that the constant-supervision message remains their strongest weapon against child deaths.

Swimming lessons have proved helpful in some situations, but only about a third of child pool-accident victims are dressed in swimwear. An unexpected plunge - in cold winter water, say - could disorient even experienced young swimmers.

Though a valuable lifesaving technique - and something the parent of every young child should know - CPR isn't preventive.


On the 10th anniversary of its launch, the "Just a Few Seconds" campaign's surviving creators (Jensen died in 1995) believe its power has been somewhat diminished as broadcast outlets each devise their own slogans and campaigns.

Richardson, for one, thinks that reuniting local media in a universal "Just a Few Seconds" campaign could further reduce drownings.

Currently, one radio station warns, "Two seconds is too long." A TV station once built its campaign around the theme "Summer of Supervision." Some of the Valley's fire departments also promote different water-safety slogans.

Uniting competitors who normally "are chewing at each other . . . builds the credibility of the campaign," Alvey said.

"I think all of the messages are great," Richardson said. "I think for most part they're well-intentioned. But the fundamental fact is, we have lost something that I think we had at one time."

Fire PAL, a non-profit, has admitted - though altruistic - self-interest in "Just a Few Seconds."

The group trademarked the "Just a Few Seconds" slogan to ensure that it wouldn't be used commercially. Arizona cities can use it by permission for free, but Richardson estimates that licensing the "Just a Few Seconds" campaign to out-of-state cities has brought in $30,000 to $50,000 to pool-safety and fire-prevention campaigns here.

Other observers believe that multiple versions of the message form a positive trend.

"I think one message can become very tired," said Nancy Stephens, associate professor of marketing at Arizona State University. "If I say to you every single day of your life, 'Don't forget to wear your scarf, it's cold,' how long before you stop hearing me?"

Channel 10 (KSAZ) weathercaster Dave Munsey has been publicly involved in water-safety issues since a friend's child drowned in 1980, and dependably adds a watch-your-kids-around-water caution to almost every newscast. He even puts the slogan on his office voice mail.

Each year, Munsey does scores of personal appearances to spread the water-safety word and will lend his presence to almost any sponsoring organization that asks.

Although he officially takes a "more-the-merrier" stance on the various pool-safety campaigns and programs, he's careful to keep his own words on point.

"I try to never confuse people with my message," he said. "If you watch them, they won't drown."

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
Written By: Dave Walker
©Copyright 1999 Arizona Republic

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