Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pooling their resources for water safety

Parents, lifeguards share responsibility for monitoring children while swimming

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
(From left) Matthew Bonomo, 6, his brother, Nicholas, 4, both of Silver Spring, and Jaad Jawdat, 4, of Washington, D.C., play in the pool Monday afternoon at the Glenwood Recreation Club in Silver Spring,
Children splashed around the pool and did back dives off the boards last week at the Glenwood Recreation Club in Silver Spring. Parents in shaded lawn chairs talked among themselves. It seemed like a perfectly normal evening, but officials say the scene has the potential for danger.

That’s because one of the easiest ways for a child to die is in a pool. And it can happen in seconds, said Pete Piringer, the media relations director for Montgomery County’s Fire and Rescue Service.

‘‘Just in the time you answer a phone call or leave momentarily is all the time a kid needs to drown,” Piringer said.

Nationally, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children age 14 and younger, taking nearly 1,000 children’s lives each year, he said. There have been eight drownings in Montgomery County between 2003 and 2008, according to Montgomery County Police, and six of them were children, including two in the last four weeks.

In the most recent case, a 6-year-old Gaithersburg boy was swimming with friends and family in his uncle’s Silver Spring pool last week when another child noticed he wasn’t moving at the bottom. Family members jumped in to rescue him, but it was too late.

It doesn’t take much for a child to slide to the bottom unnoticed, Piringer and lifeguards said.

‘‘Even with vigilant lifeguards and in a crowded community pool, kids are jumping up, squirting, splashing, jumping around ... and one of them slips down to the bottom of the pool. Is that child just getting a penny at the bottom?” Piringer said.

Glenwood pool operator Nora Mancino said there aren’t many incidents at Glenwood because most of the children are on the club’s swim team or taking swim lessons.

‘‘Most of the stuff that happens ... is just little kids who stray too far from the wall, and you have to jump in and help them back to the wall,” she said.

But the bigger county pools are a different story, said Herb Poe, the aquatics director for Martin Luther King Jr. Pool in Silver Spring.

Poe said his guards do about one rescue every other day.

Lifeguard Jenny Lyon said most rescues happen in the deep end when people who can’t swim jump off the diving boards. She said it is difficult to assess skills because there is no swim test for everyone who walks in.

‘‘I’ve saved a lot of people in the well this summer,” she said.

Poe said having so many saves actually enhances pool safety because it forces the guards to pay attention.

‘‘It’s easier to be lulled into a false sense of confidence that nothing’s going to happen if nothing ever happens,” he said.

Piringer said there is no proof that drownings are more frequent in a certain type of pool.

‘‘We see them in all environments,” he said.

But he did say lifeguards can’t do everything. Almost everyone agreed the No. 1 precaution is having a parent or guardian watching at all times.

Piringer said a family member may be able to detect warning signs easier than a lifeguard.

But Glenwood lifeguard Colleen McNickle said a drowning child is easy to spot.

‘‘They’ll be gasping for air as opposed to smiling when they come up,” she said.

She and the other lifeguards said having a parent watching helps the lifeguards, who are also watching every other child in the pool.

As Cynthia Bloom played with her three young boys at Glenwood last week, she said she always watches her children in the water. All have taken swim lessons, she said.

‘‘You can’t rely on the lifeguard to watch your kid if [the child doesn’t] know how to swim,” she said.

At the Martin Luther King Jr. pool last week, Showeet Blyther gathered a pile of flotation devices and life vests to bring to her 3- and-5-year-old daughters splashing in the baby pool.

No lifeguards supervise the shallow, gated baby pool. But even if they did, Blyther said she doesn’t take her eyes off her daughters for fear they might slip.

‘‘I watch my kids all the time,” she said.

In addition to having a parent around, Piringer recommended always swimming with a buddy, never chewing gum or eating candy while swimming and learning cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Although there hasn’t been a drowning in recent years at the Martin Luther King Jr. pool, Poe said he tells his lifeguards every time he hears about one.

‘‘It’s good to refresh people’s memories that it does happen,” he said.