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Economy may hinder anti-drowning efforts

July 13, 2009

With child drownings in the Valley on pace to meet or exceed last year's total, water-safety advocates are worried that the recession may be taking a toll on efforts to keep children safe.

So far this year, nine children younger than 12 have drowned in Maricopa County. The number of drownings didn't reach that number last year until the end of July. There have been 72 other water-related incidents involving children this year, compared with 62 by the end of July 2008.

These are discouraging figures to those who teach drowning prevention. And it's unacceptable, said Tiffaney Isaacson, water-safety coordinator for Phoenix Children's Hospital.

While it's difficult to pin down what is causing the numbers to plateau or increase, Isaacson suggested the economic downturn might play a role in hindering progress.

Declining enrollment in swimming and CPR classes, expensive pool fences that never get built and stressed-out parents who lose track of their children can all increase the potential for danger, Isaacson said.

Participation in swimming lessons at Phoenix city pools was down 40 percent in June, a drop-off that officials blame on the economy. Isaacson said CPR registration at Phoenix Children's Hospital was also down.

Mesa and Glendale have both closed pools due to budget cuts and have seen fewer children taking swimming lessons, although at a less dramatic clip than in Phoenix.

Mesa canceled two of three annual water-safety events at its pools because of budget cuts, said Darla Armfield, Mesa's recreation supervisor for aquatics.

"We've been hit," Armfield said. "But we're trying to really be creative with the resources we have."

To replace lost programs, recreation leaders in Mesa are squeezing safety lessons into public swim times through games and announcements, Armfield said.

Still, pool closures don't help the city's effort to help children become familiar with water, she said.

"I'm sure there are people who can't drive who aren't taking lessons because there isn't a pool open in their area," Armfield said.

Despite the closures and the loss of programming, safety education is still relatively cheap, said Lori Schmidt, a Scottsdale Fire Department spokeswoman and president of the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona.

"Awareness is free," she said. "Water safety doesn't have to cost anything. It's a lot of going out and talking to folks with volunteers."

Pool fences are one of the most effective anti-drowning tools but can be too expensive in hard times, costing, on average, $900 to $1,500, said Capt. Rich Bauer of the Phoenix Fire Department.

Bauer coordinates the Adopt-a-Pool-Fence program through the United Phoenix Firefighter's Association and Valley of the Sun United Way, which provides pool fences to families who demonstrate financial need. Bauer said that applications for the fences have increased this year.

Who's applying for fences has changed, too. A bad business climate and layoffs have left many who were previously middle class unable to afford the expense of fencing in a pool built when times were better, Bauer said.

The fences have proven effective, Bauer said.

During its first year in 2004, the program targeted the worst ZIP code for drowning deaths in Maricopa County, near North 67th Avenue and West Indian School Road. Volunteers walked the neighborhoods and offered a pool fence, financed with grant money, to anyone with young children and a pool.

There have been no drowning deaths in the area since, Bauer said.

"Putting in fences (is) one of the most aggressive things you can do to bring down drowning numbers," he said.

Bauer said that nine times out of 10, if someone doesn't have a pool fence, it's for financial reasons. He surveys residents during targeted pool-fence walks.

The program has installed more than 500 fences since it began, Bauer said.

The psychological impact of the recession may also hinder parents' vigilance while watching their children.

Isaacson pointed to a 2008 study conducted at the University of California-Berkeley that suggested a relationship between the economy and infant mortality.

The study, printed in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, found that a 1 percent decline in employment in California cities coincided with an 8 percent increase in child deaths by accidental injuries, such as drowning.

Drawing on previous studies dealing with how personal behavior is affected by the economy, the report speculated that overburdened or depressed parents may be more distracted from their children.

Bauer said the report's suggestions are not out of line with what he's seen in 20 years of working as a firefighter.

"Stress causes people to act uncharacteristically," Bauer said. "People get their mind wandering on something else, like, 'Where's my food coming from? Where's dinner coming from?' They tend to get complacent. Meanwhile, they don't notice their son is walking through the doggy door."

That's all the more reason to keep emphasizing safety, he said.

"We can't get complacent or the numbers will go up," he said.

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
Alex Dalenberg
©Copyright 2009 Arizona Republic

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