Druann Letter and her family are part of that group. Before her son, Weston, drowned on May 31, 1998, she did not think it would happen to them. Weston, who was 3, drowned in the backyard swimming pool while family members were busy in other parts of the Gilbert home.
“I heard about other children drowning before Weston, but I never put two and two together,” Letter said at a March 25 drowning-prevention event at Mesa Community College. “Never once did I think it could happen to me. But it did happen. It could happen to any of us.”
After her son’s death, Letter started Water Watchers, an organization dedicated to spreading the word about water safety and drowning prevention. Water Watchers has been adopted by Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and it is one of several Valley groups that work with local fire departments to hammer home the message of being vigilant around water.
The Water Safety Day at Mesa Community College is the organization’s annual kickoff to the summer pool season. Eleven hundred first-graders from schools throughout the Valley gathered for a fun day that included water-rescue demonstrations, crafts, and a chance to meet firefighters and other emergency responders and see equipment.
The event also was a chance to reinforce water-safety lessons the students had been learning for weeks in school and at home.
“First grade is the magic age,” said Tiffaney Isaacson, water-safety specialist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “They’re still in the age group at greatest risk, but they’re old enough to comprehend. I would love to have 1,000 2-year-olds for something like this, but they’re too young.”
Though those water-safety messages are delivered throughout the year, they get special emphasis in the spring ahead of swimming-pool season. At this time of year, Southeast Valley fire departments step up their efforts to spread the word.
The Chandler Fire Department recruited volunteers to pass out water-safety materials in the northern part of the city on March 29, and other Southeast Valley cities will host similar efforts in the coming weeks. Firefighters will visit dozens of schools and take part in other special events to keep the focus on drowning prevention as the weather heats up.
In Mesa, for example, the Fire Department will focus on distributing materials at various events from April through August, although department members will talk about water safety anytime they are asked.
“We’re finding it makes sense, economically, to spread the message over a few months,” Mesa life and education administrator Michele Long said. “We also make sure to coordinate and partner with other agencies.”
Local businesses are also getting into the mix. Local Realtor Kenny Klaus has been giving away Water Watcher tags for the past year. A simple laminated card worn on a lanyard, this tool is designed to be used at parties to ensure that one adult is always watching the pool, away from conversation and distraction. The idea is simple. One adult takes a five to twenty minute shift watching the children in the pool. They put on the water watcher tag and devote themselves to water safety. At the end of their shift, another adult assumes the position. During that time, the Water Watcher is not engaged in any conversation, but has their eyes solely on the pool. In case of emergency, there are basic CPR instructions on the reverse of the Water Watcher tag. Klaus has been giving them away free of charge at his office at Ellsworth and Guadalupe in Mesa.
Those concentrated efforts are coming at just the right time. There have been four water-related events in the Southeast Valley since Jan. 1, according to Children’s Safety Zone statistics. Two of the people involved in those events — a child in Mesa and an adult in Chandler — died.
In 2013, there were 138 water-related incidents that resulted in 42 deaths in Maricopa County. Ten of those who died were children.
“Arizona is Number 2 in the nation (behind Florida) in drowning,” Isaacson said. “We lose six times as many children to drowning as we do to fire and burns.”
There are many reasons the Valley ranks so high in water-related incidents. Among those are the high number of swimming pools and a large number of families with young children.
As a result, everyone should have a plan for supervising children around water, Isaacson said.
“This is the kickoff to swimming season, it’s time to get your yard ready for summer,” Isaacson said.
Those preparations include making sure any fences, gates or other barriers surrounding pools are functioning properly. Homeowners should not leave furniture or other objects where children can use them as an aid to climb over a pool barrier. Adults also should make sure that those barriers are secure at the bottom to prevent small children from going under to gain access to pools.
In addition, homeowners should check that windows and doors — including sliding patio doors and doggy doors — are secure.
Those precautions apply to homes without children as well.
Most important, adults with children in their care should be vigilant around water.
Cookouts, parties and other gatherings should include adults designated to watch children in the pool. Make sure that those designated watchers know the address. If someone calls 911 from a cellphone, it is important he or she can tell the dispatcher the address.
Inflatable armbands or other toys are not enough to keep children safe. Children, especially those who are not strong swimmers, should wear life vests, Long said.
Toddlers and infants should never be left alone in bathtubs and care should be taken to secure toilets, buckets and other sources of water in which young children could drown.
“You have to use layers of protection,” Letter said. “Nothing is foolproof so you have to have multiple layers.”
Letter’s involvement in drowning prevention efforts was sparked by her son’s death. Though the number of child drownings has decreased in recent years (there were 10 last year, 20 in 2012), having even one more family experience what she and others have been through is too many.
“We just met a young mom whose son passed away last July,” Letter said. “You see a lot of moms involved in things like this. It’s like therapy for us. Hopefully, not one more child will be lost.”
Water incidents in ’14
Since Jan. 1, there have been 23 water-related incidents in Maricopa and Pinal counties, with nine deaths. Five of those who died were children. Following is a breakdown of those incidents in the Southeast Valley:
Apache Junction: 0 incidents.
Chandler: 1 incident (adult fatality).
Gilbert: 0 incidents.
Guadalupe: 0 incidents.
Mesa: 1 incident (child fatality).
Phoenix: 13 incidents, 8 involving children (2 child fatalities, 2 adult fatalities).
Queen Creek: 2 incidents (no fatalities).
Tempe: 0 incidents.
For more information on drowning prevention and water safety, contact your local fire department or one of the following agencies:
Banner Children’s Water Safety Campaign:www.bannerhealth.com/CardonChildrensWaterWalk.
Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona: www.preventdrownings.org.
Children’s Safety Zone: www.childrensafetyzone.com.
Get Your Free Water Watcher Tag by visiting The Kenny Klaus Team at 2919 S Ellsworth Rd #133 on the Southeast Corner of Ellsworth and Guadalupe behind the Sonic weekdays between 9-5.
Major content courtesy Weldon B. Johnson, The Republic | azcentral.com12:57 p.m. MST April 5, 2014