Where you live, the color of your skin, and the amount of money your family makes may affect your chances of drowning. Drowning prevention isn’t just a safety issue; it’s an issue of equity. Many resources related to water recreation such as learning to swim, access to safe sites, lifejackets, lifeguards, and water related education can be expensive, and immigrants from other countries and even long time residents may not have access to safe recreational waters, or opportunities to learn about them. Here at Public Health, we aim to level the playing field so more of our community members have access to water safety education and opportunities.
Our Violence and Injury Prevention unit works toward eliminating the disproportionate burden of drowning on families of color and low-income families. Through the Child Death Review process we and our many partners, including Seattle Children’s Hospital, have analyzed drowning deaths and identified the patterns and modifiable risk factors that lead to drowning deaths here in King County. Some work that we have done to prevent drowning includes:
- Increasing education through April Pools Day. King County has been no stranger to rain this winter, but now that spring is here, it’s time to play in all of our waters. Throughout the month of April, public pools throughout King County and Washington State are offering one hour of free water safety instruction, elementary rescue and life jacket use, and one hour of free swim. There is also a raffle for free lifejackets, swim lessons, and other prizes. April Pools Day is an opportunity for families from all backgrounds to learn more about water safety and increase their activity. While April Pools Day is held at a pool to provide a controlled and supervised environment for people to swim and learn, the skills taught at the event are intended to be transferrable to recreating in many types of water. Find a pool in your neighborhood and check out the event!
- Reducing the gap in pool fencing. In response to children drowning in in settings with inadequate pool fencing, our Environmental Health Division joined forces with Washington State’s Building Code Council to regulate, educate, and enforce building codes designed to prevent drowning. Specifically, we worked in non-single-family residential settings (apartments and condos, public pools, spas, budget motels), and single-family homes, to reduce gaps in pool fencing to a maximum of four inches, preventing children from squirming through fences and getting into pools unsupervised.
- Closing the Lake Washington Ship Canal to Swimming. After reviewing cases and recognizing that several drowning deaths occurred annually in the Lake Washington Ship Canal system, we provided the information necessary to change legislation and close the Ship Canal to recreational swimming. Since this time, no child drowning deaths have occurred in this body of water.
- Offering targeted interventions to communities in need. After recognizing that drowning rates among the Vietnamese community were higher than any other group, we partnered with Seattle Children’s Hospital who lead the development of targeted interventions that provide water safety education to Vietnamese community members in their language.
- Working collaboratively to develop Everyone Swims. Our Prevention division and Seattle Children’s Hospital launched Everyone Swims in 2010 with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant funding to increase safe swimming and water recreation access for families with low incomes and families of color. Everyone Swims brought community health clinics and water recreation organizations together to improve policies and systems that facilitated higher numbers of clinics screening for swimming ability, referrals from clinics to pools, more swim lesson scholarship accessibility, and expansion of special swim programs.
- Requiring lifeguards, establishing lifeguard certification requirements, and increasing lifeguard presence. Recognizing that many drowning deaths occur with no supervision, we worked with the Washington Department of Health and other stakeholders to change regulations to require lifeguards at public swimming pools and water parks throughout King County. We further required that those lifeguards were certified, trained in CPR, and dedicated to watching the pool space. We also increased the number of swimming areas with lifeguards.
There is still work to be done. Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional child injury death in Washington state, but we know many ways to prevent it, including the use of lifejackets, child supervision, water education, and abstaining from alcohol and other intoxicants while recreating in and supervising people around the water. Sometimes water recreation and lifeguards are considered a luxury for budgets and therefore are at great risk. We try to show how important these services are to improving health equity and making our communities safer. Show your support by attending April Pools Day and supporting your local public pool.