Mar 072013
There is a distinct warning tone sounded at the Apache Junction Fire District to signal drowning calls. Mark Gomez doesn’t even like to describe it.

“I don’t ever want to hear it,” said Mr. Gomez, AJFD’s EMS/training coordinator. “It raises the hair on the back on my neck.”

Like so many first fire departments in the far East Valley, Mr. Gomez has seen his share of drownings. Some have had happy outcomes. Some have not.

The drowning death May 15 in Glendale of a 17-month-old boy believed to have crawled outside through a built-in doggy-door to the backyard pool is a reminder that fatal accidents can happen anytime, anywhere to anyone.

Between Jan. 1 and May 15 of this year in Maricopa and Pinal counties, there have been 36 water-related incidents, according to the website Of those there were 12 deaths, including three children.

Children’s Safety Zone collaborates with local fire departments, hospitals and media to gather statistics and stories on water-related incidents and fatalities in Arizona.

During that time frame, the Queen Creek Fire Department responded to water-related pediatric calls (for ages 5 and younger) for two children. Rural/Metro Fire Department in Pinal County, which serves San Tan Valley, responded to one pediatric call.

Mesa Fire Department has been the busiest this year, responding to three water-related calls “ヤ two pediatric calls and one for a child between 6-12 years.

The Apache Junction Fire District, which serves AJ and Gold Canyon, has responded to two pediatric calls this year.

“That’s two too many,” Tina Gerola, the district’s public education coordinator, said in a phone interview last week. “Our target is zero.”

Drowning is the top cause of injury-related death for children across the United States, according to a press release from the Maricopa Fire Department about May being National Water Safety Month. More than 1,000 children drowned in 2006 nationwide, the release said. Arizona ranked second in the nation for child drownings.

To reduce the number of water-related emergencies in San Tan Valley, RMFD acted as the driving force behind forming the San Tan Valley Public Safety Coalition last year. Its goal is to build a strong and safe community through ongoing events and safety campaigns, according to a story published Oct. 19 in the Independent.

“Rural/Metro started it with Southwest Ambulance, Air Evac, Banner Ironwood, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and the Johnson Ranch Homeowners Association,” Colin Williams, public information officer for RMFD, said during a phone interview last week. “We all come together for various events and public awareness campaigns, like the one held a month ago at the Circle K at Ironwood and Ocotillo.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about thinking about drowning prevention,” Mr. Williams continued. “People need to be super vigilant around children. There is no better supervision than direct eye supervision.”

Stay aware

Thomas and Amy Miller know how easy it is to think they had everything under control only to find out they didn’t.

On Aug. 19, the Mesa couple was attending a birthday party at the Apache Junction home of Mrs. Miller’s mother. Their son Owen, then 3, had been swimming with his twin and older sisters but left the pool to go to the bathroom, Mr. Miller said during a phone interview last week. Owen did not remove the floaties he wore on his arms when he went inside.

“I was in the deep end with the girls and had my back to the rest of the pool when I turned and saw Owen’s floaties on top of the water,” Mr. Miller said. “I saw him under the water.”

Mr. Miller dove in and pulled his son out of the water. He told his sister-in-law to call 911 and began CPR. Mr. Miller started compressions while Mrs. Miller started breaths. Owen coughed up water and started crying, Mr. Miller said.

The youngster spent the night in the hospital, where the medical staff told the Millers that Owen appeared well.

Afterward, people from the party commented to Mr. Miller they might have just stood there and waited for the paramedics to begin CPR. It came easily to the dad of three; one week earlier, he had attended a refresher course in CPR conducted through work.

“I’ve taken CPR but had never used it, and when I needed it, it was there. I don’t know if I did it 100 percent correct, but the firemen told me I must have done something right because my son was breathing.”

Reflecting back on the day, Mr. Miller said he was surprised at how much ran through his mind when he saw his son under the water.

“My wife and I are losing our son, my children are losing their brother. The immediate guilt that I was in the water and it was my fault,” Mr. Miller said. “Somehow he slipped in without us hearing. My wife said you’d think people who are drowning would thrash around and scream for help but drowning is a pretty silent killer. No one can hear you under water.”

Nearly a year after the near-drowning, the Millers are still dealing with the terror they felt that day. Mrs. Miller declines interviews. “She still gets choked up,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Miller speaks at public events about the event.

“If I can help one person to not go through that feeling that my wife and I were feeling, then it’s worth it,” he said.

What you can do

Local first responders offer an array of free literature and devices to help prevent drownings. Members of the QCFD have gone door-to-door accompanied by Mayor Gail Barney to educate residents about the importance of water safety, Ron Knight, interim fire chief for QCFD, said.

“So far in 2013, we’ve had two near-drowning events, both involving backyard pools. Fortunately, they both had good outcomes but education is a part of prevention,” Chief Knight said by phone last week. “We went out on a Saturday and targeted neighborhoods with engine companies. Mayor Barney came with us.”

Since April 6, QCFD has distributed more than 450 pouches containing water-safety information. Additional packets are available at the fire stations. QCFD has two locations: fire station No. 411 is at 22407 S. Ellsworth Road and fire Station No. 412 is at 24787 S. Sossaman Road. The AJFD administration office is at 565 N. Idaho Road. For fire station locations, visit

AJFD and RMFD also offer similar packets that include a Water Watchers bracelet with whistle and a tag for the designated Water Watcher to wear. For Rural/Metro fire station locations, visit

Water Watchers is a national program in which a responsible adult is designated to supervise children’s water activities. The Water Watcher must be capable of rescuing a drowning child, Ms. Gerola said. She recounted an incident in which a Mesa mother, who was the designated Water Watcher, died because she did not know how to swim. She drowned when she tried to jump in the water to save a child.

Ms. Gerola also warns people not to use floaties or swim rings as life-saving devices.

“Anything inflatable is a toy. Children slip out of those things,” she said. Instead, she recommends children wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved vest in the appropriate size at all times, especially when they are out of the water. That will help prevent a possible drowning if the child should fall in the water.

David Tait, owner of EVO Swim School in Queen Creek, recommends parents help their children become comfortable in the water at an early age and with adult supervision.

“When children are 6 months to a year, being in the water is a good bonding experience between the child and their parent, but at that age they don’t learn a whole lot more than general comfort in the water,” Mr. Tait said by phone last week. “At a year to 20 months, they can kick and control their mouths so they’re not swallowing or choking on water.”

The biggest deterrent to a child learning to swim is fear of the water, which they can learn from an adult, he said.

“A parent that always shields their child’s face from the water is doing that child a disservice. It makes them uncomfortable in the water,” Mr. Tait said. Also, rather than taking a crash course, Mr. Tait recommended children take one or two lessons a week over an extended period of time to help them develop healthy water habits.

AJFD produced the video public service announcement “If Only” that was introduced to the website, last week. It features students from Superstition Mountain Elementary in Apache Junction.

It can be viewed alone along with other helpful resources and links.

Other useful websites include:, and

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