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New Call For Pool Safety

July 8, 2000

  Druann Letter lost her 3-Year-Old son, Weston (shown at age 2 in photograph behind her) in a backyard pool accident two years ago.

Every day, something reminds Shaunna Malles of the little son she can't hold anymore.

She thinks of Ryan constantly and remembers the day before he drowned in January when he sat near the top of their family's swimming pool. dipping his feet in the water. For Ryan's second birthday in June, Malles released balloons at his grave.

"It's almost impossible to live without him," Malles said. "I have to keep completely occupied all day long, every minute, so I don't break down."

Nearly twice as many Valley children have drowned this year than in all of last year. Seventeen children have drowned in Maricopa County, compared to nine in 1999. Ten of those children drowned in Phoenix, including two in just one week this month. The last time that many children drowned in the city was 1996.

"It's absolutely unbelievable," said Ed Swift, a Tempe businessman who is involved with the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Central Arizona. "It's been the worst year I've seen in a long time."

Mention the numbers to Valerie Richardson and goose bumps run down her spine.

"There's little children dying all the time. We've got to do something stronger. We've got to pull together," said Richardson, who along with her husband, Forrest, created the "Just a Few Seconds" anti-drowning campaign 11 summers ago.

But water safety efforts have lagged somewhat in recent years and public interest isn't what it used to be. The "Just a Few Seconds" message is still out there. But now it competes with a variety of other water safety messages. Some say that too many messages is too confusing.

Others say people just aren't listening anymore.

"The message is so difficult to get out," said Bob Khan, deputy chief of the Phoenix Fire Department. "It can happen to anybody, but nobody thinks it's going to happen to them."

In 1989, Phoenix led the nation in backyard pool drownings, with 16. The following year, after the "Just a Few Seconds" campaign was launched, the number of child drownings dropped to 11, and the number of near drownings fell by more than half, from 80 to 32.

"The thing is, when the numbers are down, no one cares about the campaign," said John Harrington, President of the Drowning Coalition of Central Arizona and father of an 18-month-old son, Rex, who drowned in 1986. "When the numbers go up, then everyone says, "Why aren't we doing something?"

So Valley fire departments, knowing that increased awareness could be the key, are stepping up efforts to get the word out about water safety. In Phoenix, firefighters hand out brochures at community events nearly every weekend, and they're turning to the Internet. A Web site that will provide water safety information through short quizzes should be up in a couple months.

In Mesa, officials mailed about 5,000 water-safety pamphlets to pool owners, and papered businesses, apartment complexes and housing developments with posters.

There are TV commercials in English and Spanish, radio spots, newspaper ads, billboards and special water safety days.

Forrest Richardson, president of Fire Pals, a citizens group affiliated with the Phoenix Fire Department, wants to target new Valley residents who may not realize how dangerous water can be.

And he wants to bring back the daily reminders that have disappeared over the years: stickers for pool gates, toilets, doggy doors, sliding glass doors and telephones, and refrigerator magnets.

"The more we can get people to do something: physically put a sticker some place; physically take a checklist and walk around their yard. The more inter active we can make this the better," Richardson said. "Even if they remember one thing, we feel that's a good thing."

Malles, a mother of 11, said she had seen the billboards and bumper stickers and watched the commercials about water safety. The family installed a pool fence at their Peoria home in December. But when the fence went up, their guard went down. Just a little. Just enough.

Nineteen-month-old Ryan somehow breached the gate and drowned trying to reach an inflatable ball.

"Everybody needs to understand that they've just got to watch their babies all the time," said Malles, who has since moved her family to New River. "Know where they are every minute."

And don't depend on that fence.

Druann Letter, whose 3 year-old son, Weston Thomas, drowned two years ago in the family's backyard pool, thinks that some kind of daily message to parents would help prevent such tragedies.

"You know how that stupid seatbelt reminder comes on in your car every time you get in, something like that," she said. "You need some thing that reminds you. We have some public awareness messages, but not enough."

Letter, who has twin 21/2 year-old girls, helped organize a water safety day in Mesa earlier this year, hoping that water safety messages can become as commonplace as ones about fire safety.

"We go to the grief counselor every week," Letter said. "It doesn't get any easier, it gets different. Like, I can talk about it now and not start crying." She still sleeps with Weston's blanket every night. Her family visits him in the cemetery at Christmas. They release balloons on his birthday. Each fall, they buy him school clothes to donate to needy children.

Letter looks at photos of Weston all over the house and sees him in her daughters' faces. "I miss that little boy," she said. "We lost all the dreams just because there was one second when you thought it couldn't happen, and it did."

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
Byline: By Judi Villa and Laura Truillo The Arizona Republic
©Copyright 2000 Arizona Republic

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