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Deaths put a focus on pool safety in Gilbert

Apr. 16, 2003

Sisters Sharon Souza-Dotson (left), 20 months, and Arianna Souza-Dotson, 3, both died Monday.

The deaths of two Gilbert sisters this week is a "call to action" for mandatory drowning-prevention education, the mother of a drowning victim said Tuesday.

"This is a real call to action for every single member of our town to do something and not put it on the back of individual parents," said Druann Letter, 34, whose 3-year-old son drowned in 1998.

Arianna Souza-Dotson, 3, and Sharon Souza-Dotson, 20 months old, who died at a Mesa hospital on Monday, became the first children to drown in Gilbert since 2001. The sisters were pulled from an unfenced pool last Friday.

On Tuesday night, the Gilbert Water Safety Coalition held its regular meeting and discussed how to get the message of safety out to the community. When Gilbert voters rejected mandatory pool fences in November 2001, the town was left with only a state law requiring fences around back yards with pools.

Letter's son, Weston, drowned in an unfenced pool in May 1998.

"I feel as if part of our job wasn't done. We didn't get the message out to someone," said Letter, co-chairwoman of the coalition. "We believe a pool fence does save lives. It is the only, the only, piece of equipment proven to do so."

Gilbert Town Councilman Dave Petersen was not in favor of mandatory pool fences in 2001 but says he would have one himself if he had a pool.

"I think we did the right thing with the pool fence law," Petersen said. "My heart goes out to the family of those two kids. It is not a matter of a fence or no fence. It is a matter of parental responsibility and supervision."

Petersen said many drownings occur where pools have fences and where a fence wouldn't have made a difference.

"I don't think new laws are the answer," Petersen said. "You can't fence the whole world."

The stepped-up education effort advocated by Letter has already begun, as Gilbert firefighters headed out to grocery stores, restaurants and fitness centers last weekend handing out fliers, reminding people to keep an eye on children and make their pools safe.

"It got speeded up by a couple of days because of the drownings," said Assistant Chief Jim Jobusch. "We will be out for the next several weeks hitting it very hard."

Letter accepts the decision of the voters and now believes mandatory education might be the best way to save lives, with people who build or remodel pools required to take a safety class or view a safety video.

"We need to mandate our community to educate parents about this potential risk," Letter said.

Gilbert Fire Chief Collin Dewitt said the department plans to continue its stepped-up education effort, which may have helped the town go from three child drownings in 2001 to zero last year.

"It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears," Dewitt said Tuesday. "We do everything short of putting up a fence around your house."

Even city e-mails have been tagged with drowning-prevention information, he said.

"Everybody has to understand how important a fence is. It is as important to us as seat belts are in cars. There isn't much difference," Dewitt said. "If we had a serial killer or a disease that was taking our children at this rate, we would be beating our chests for a vaccine or an arrest of the killer."

Police are conducting an investigation, which is routine for all drownings.

Sgt. Dan Pringle said results, expected by the end of the week, will be submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for review, also routine.

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
By Senta Scarborough
Copyright 2003 Arizona Republic

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