Summer has arrived and so have some of the tragic consequences that accompany outdoor fun: child drownings deaths and near-drownings. Already this year, we’ve seen too many gut-wrenching headlines of young lives taken too soon. We, as advocates for the safety of children, are deeply troubled by every story we read because these deaths are entirely avoidable.
In 2013, at least 41 of the 301 children under age 14 who drowned in a swimming pool or spa in the United States lived in Florida. This makes Florida second in the nation on a list that no state wants to lead. And in South Florida in particular, with our nearly year-round pool weather, we must be constantly vigilant against a split-second accident that can cause a lifetime of heartbreak.
In 2007, the prevention of drownings became a national priority when Congress passed the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. The namesake of the legislation, a beautiful little girl who went by the name “Graeme”, was a strong swimmer at just 7-years-old, but the drain she was suctioned to entrapped her and was so powerful that not even grown adults could pull her free.
The VGB Act was the first federal pool and spa safety legislation signed into law in our nation’s history. Its passage would not have been possible without a number of advocates including Graeme’s parents, Safe Kids Worldwide and the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.
The law instructed the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to create a public education campaign to reduce child drownings, near-drownings, and drain entrapments in all pools. The result was the Pool Safely campaign, which advocates for multiple layers of protection, constant supervision of children in and around the water, ensuring that children learn how to swim and parents learn CPR, as well as the installation of safer drain covers in all public pools and spas.
The campaign encourages parents, children, pool owners, state and local governments, and safety organizations to act together as stakeholders in our mutual mission to save lives. This point cannot be underscored enough: there is no single solution to prevent drownings. But layers of protection, including CPR training, safer equipment, watchful eyes, and more public education, are a forceful combination of resources we can all utilize — together — in order to protect and save the precious lives of children.
One tangible step we can take is to ensure that more children learn how to swim. This is especially true within minority communities. According to USA Swimming, 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children cannot swim, and black children alone drown at a rate nearly three times higher than their white peers, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. This disparity is unacceptable and unnecessary.
Another important component of the VGB Act was the creation of an incentive grant program to encourage states to adopt their own pool and spa safety laws. And we are thrilled that in January, President Obama signed into law a provision that expands this incentive program to municipalities, since Congress and CPSC quickly realized that local communities were better positioned to meet the program’s minimum requirements. CPSC intends to create a new position responsible for operating the grant program and making sure grantees use the money for pool inspections and drowning prevention education.
Since 2000, Florida state law has required all pools and spas be equipped with safety equipment such as fences, self-closing and self-latching door mechanisms or door and window alarms that either block a child’s access to the pool or sound an alarm when someone unexpectedly exits. We need more vigilant enforcement of these laws from our state and local governments because too many children drown in noncompliant pools. And pool owners need to keep their required safety equipment in place after inspectors leave because the bottom line is that, unfortunately, sometimes adult supervision lapses and when it does, an obstacle in the path of a young child can save their life.
We encourage readers to get in touch with their local leaders. Ask them to reach out to CPSC to get more information on available resources, minimum requirements, and application processes.
When we combine forces as concerned community members, our collective voice cannot be ignored.
We will never know how many lives we may save or how many near-drownings we prevent, but we do know that we can prevent the heartbreak of countless parents.
That alone is worth the effort.
Wasserman Schultz represents parts of Broward and Miami-Dade Counties in Congress, and is the author of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. Adler is the Acting Chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.