Drowning is a national problem, and prevention is a topic about which many pool care professionals are deeply passionate.
Since 2015, Service Industry News has featured a column, ‘ Not on my Watch’, that chronicles the media-reported drownings in the country. It details the deaths and near deaths of people in swimming pools and spas. The point of the column is to get people to realize the frequency, immediacy, and reality of the drowning problem that we have in this country.
After collecting a year’s worth of stories, we present the following information: Not on my Watch discovered and reported 170 child drowning deaths in pools and spas from May 2021 to April 2022.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 350 children die of drowning in a pool or spa every year.
Therefore, last year Not on my Watch uncovered 49 percent of all U.S. child pool and spa drownings.
In many cases, Not on my Watch found the age, gender, location and circumstances of the drowning death. Therefore, we can report: From 2021 to 2022, Not on my Watch found that 70 percent of the drowning were boys and 30 percent were girls. Those percentages are fairly consistent with CPSC data, which reports that more than twice as many drowning deaths are boys.
The locations of the drownings were reported. Not on my Watch found that the states with the highest percentage of the country’s reported child drownings last year included Florida, 31%, Texas, 12%; and Arizona, 15% In many cases, the details of the drownings were reported. This is especially pertinent information.
In some incidents, children were reported to have drowned in the midst of a large gathering, such as a party, family reunion, or other function where many others were present.
From the data collected, this was true of 14 percent of all the drowned children found.
This number is lower than prior years, which generally find that about 23 percent of children drown during social gatherings. It may reflect social distancing during the COVID pandemic.
Many children were reported to have drowned in a hotel or motel pool, where some parents assume the presence of a lifeguard.
From the data collected, this was true of 10 percent of all of the children found.
Many children were reported to have drowned in a public pool or waterpark, where there is certainly a lifeguard present. From the data collected, this was true of 6 percent of all of the children found.
From the data collected, most children who drown do so in a residential pool — either at a private home or apartment complex. For the last year, this was true of 84 percent of children.
In some cases, children are reported to have drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool or spa. A parent or guardian notices that the child is missing only to find that they have gained unauthorized access to someone else’s pool. From the data collected, this was true of 5 percent of the children who drowned last year. This is consistent with data collected from prior years.
This is particularly salient information because many pool owners who do not have children
Figure 1: Child Drowning by Month. Data from 2020-2021 ‘ Not on my Watch’.
do not believe that they should incorporate common safety measures for their pools, such as fences, covers, or alarms. It’s also important because many people who don’t have or use pools don’t teach their children to swim.
It should be mentioned that Not on my Watch failed to deliver one crucial bit of information: the number of non-fatal drownings that occur every year. Every day, America’s swimming pools see close calls where the child is rescued in time to send them to the hospital in serious, critical, or grave condition. In most of these instances, the final outcome is never reported. While the Consumer Product Safety Commission does report the annual number of emergency room visits, they do not report whether the drowning incidents resulted in brain damage or permanent injury.
But Nadina Riggsbee, the president and founder of the National Drowning Foundation, can shed some light on where these unreported children end up.
“Drowning is the one of the No. 1 causes of death and disability. The death is horrendous, but the ones who survive with massive brain damage are worse,” Riggsbee said.
According to Riggsbee, in California alone, there are more than 700 severely brain damaged children currently living in state hospitals as the result of drowning incidents.
“These kids are living well into adulthood, with medical bills for round-the-clock nursing of about $500,000 per year per child,” Riggsbee said.
The Not on my Watch column stresses that drowning events are real: tragic, frequently preventable, and much more than just statistics.
But there are a lot of take-home messages that statistics can provide. One message is that there must always be a dedicated water watcher when children are around water. Data from the “large gathering” drowning incidents show that simply having a large number of people present around the pool does not prevent drowning.
Another message is for parents to teach children to swim, and teach them early.
Children under 4 have the highest drowning rate. By some estimates, drownings are eight times as likely to happen to children who don’t know how to swim. Most of the children found in unattended neighbors’ pools were also under the age of 4. Teaching children to swim provides them with a layer of protection if they go unsupervised — even if it doesn’t make them drownproof.
But this also brings up an important point for all pool owners: Restrict access to your pools, even if you don’t have children. Install and lock a gate around your pool. Many children are attracted to water. The last thing anyone wants to find when they come home at the end of the day is a drowned neighbor’s child in their pool.
Concerned parents can get a complete list of permitted pools in their neighborhood by contacting their local planning department.
Additional layers of protection can also help to protect children against drowning.
Perhaps the biggest take-home message is to be aware of drowning risks. Awareness of a potential hazard could be the best protection we can offer our children.
It is time for drowning prevention to become part of our national conversation.
Our special thanks to Jason Lehman, the service professional who helped inspire our part of that endeavor.