Keeping Water Babies Safe

Children need education, life jackets and adult supervision

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Accidental drownings are the No.1 cause of injury-related deaths for children under the age of 5.

Water is fun. It sparkles, it splashes, and children seem naturally drawn to it whether it’s in a bucket, a bathtub or a pond. But for an unsupervised child, the consequences of that attraction can be deadly. According to Holly Hawley, the aquatic supervisor with Rogue Valley YMCA in Medford, the horrifying truth is that accidental drownings are the No.1 cause of injury-related deaths for children under the age of 5, and the leading cause of death for children 14 and under.

CAPITALIZE it, bold it and underline it, insists Hawley. “The biggest danger of all is the lack of parental supervision, or parents who may be close by but aren’t paying attention when their kids are in or near the water. Better water safety education has to take place in our community.” As a 20-year veteran of both adult and children’s aquatic activities, she feels this can’t be stressed strongly enough.

Staying afloat with preventive measures

 Part of that education is about having multiple barriers to backyard pools, Hawley explains. “People often feel since the yard is fenced, that’s a good safeguard, but that is only one layer of protection. Kids can have access from the inside of the house directly to the pool, so the children who live in the house don’t have adequate protection from potential danger.”

 Swimming lessons add another layer of security, says Hawley. “We start teaching water orientation as early as 6 months of age. We teach them what to do if they fall into the water, how to turn themselves around and get back to the edge of the pool. They learn basic skills like getting comfortable with putting their face in the water and how to float. From there, we can build additional skills. Knowing how to swim is not a guarantee that your child will be safe, but it is one more layer of knowledge and experience.”

Sergeant Shawn Richards with Jackson County Sheriff’s Office agrees that education is critical. His perspective comes from his experience working in search and rescue, marine and forest patrol. “Here in the Rogue Valley we have many recreational areas that have bodies of water, so it’s important for kids to be taught how to be safe while having fun.”

First and foremost, Richards says, they need to be trained from an early age to always wear a life jacket. “In Oregon, anyone 13 and younger is required to wear one, and that goes for paddleboarding or any other water activities. If they see parents wear them, that’s a good model for the way children think about water safety. They can still play hard and have fun while the life jacket allows them to float so they can rest and conserve energy.”

Prepare for summer fun

Richards says the majority of incidents they respond to happen between Memorial Day and Labor Day when as many as 800 rented rafts with families aboard float local rivers. “Some areas of white water can be tricky and if a raft turns over, everyone falls out, including the kids. We always hope the rental companies do a little education first on what to do if that happens. If everyone is wearing life jackets, it’s usually no big deal.”

Because most of us don’t experience the reality of capsizing, Hawley feels it’s important to practice for the unexpected. “Most people don’t expect to end up in the water, so it’s a good idea to experience what it feels like to fall out of a boat or tip over. The Rogue Valley YMCA has Safety Days where we teach people how to put on a life jacket and how to adjust them properly. It’s amazing how many people don’t know how they should fit. Then we have boats in the pool that we purposely tip over, so children can practice what that feels like and learn how to recover and get their bearings. The difference is, when outdoors, you have to be prepared for much colder water. Our pool is 84 degrees, so if you fall in the river or a lake, the water temperature will be a shock and panic is what can lead to your death.”

Saving lives with CPR

According to the Center for Disease Control, for every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency care for nonfatal submersion injuries that can result in severe brain damage leading to long-term disabilities. “Another important layer of protection is parents learning how to do CPR,” Hawley advises. “There are many cases where a child might have survived a drowning accident if the parents could have administered CPR right away.”

Teach your children well

 In addition to swimming lessons and using life jackets, Richards says parents need to teach their children to have respect for the water. “Take time to show the kids how swift and deep the water is and explain why it’s dangerous. Even give them a little demonstration, using a life jacket so maybe they will be more cautious and less inquisitive about playing in or around water.”

Whether indoors or out, encourage the buddy system, says Richards. “It’s always good for kids to have another friend with them in case anything happens. Also, parents should take the time to check out the area your kids are going to be playing in to make sure it is safe.”

Although any body of water can be dangerous, Hawley notes, “In a pool, at least you can see to the bottom, so you have visibility. In a lake, once that child gets under the surface of the water, you have no visibility, so if you’re not keeping track of your child and they go under, they immediately disappear.”

From his experience in dealing with tragic water accidents, Richards says, “Parents need to take the time to educate themselves and their kids and, I can’t say it enough, wear life jackets. Of the 30 or so drowned people that I’ve had to deal with in my career, only one was wearing a life jacket and that person had a heart attack. It’s such an easy, inexpensive and effective way to protect kids.”

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Rogue Valley water safety

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Sergeant Shawn Richards with Jackson County Sheriff’s office, whose duties include search and rescue, marine and forest patrol, says, “Here in the Rogue Valley we have many recreational areas that have bodies of water, so it’s important for kids to be taught how to be safe while having fun.”

Sgt. Richards identifies some local dangers:

“Because lakes like Emigrant, Applegate and Lost Creek Reservoir are man-made waterways, the banks below the water surface can be very steep. You might be wading along with your toes in the water and suddenly it can go from a foot deep to 20 feet deep, which can be extremely dangerous.

The Expo ponds are  rock pits filled with water, so the walls are absolutely vertical. In this case, you can instantly go from 6 inches deep to 40 feet deep. In the more rural areas, because irrigation canals are man-made, they tend to be deep and have steep banks so once you fall in, it can be very hard to get out.

Bear Creek is a commonplace for children to play. It may look shallow, but it can also be very swift, so some children get in trouble there.

With our abundance of rivers, there are many places in Jackson County to jump off rocks into the waterways. I don’t know how to stress strongly enough that this is never a good idea.”

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