Here are ways to keep your child from becoming the next drowning victim

Thursday, June 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

It only takes only three tragic, silent seconds.

Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death to children in the Dallas area. Just in the past month, at least 18 area residents have drowned. And for every child who drowns, there are four who nearly drown, and 16 who require medical treatment that could lead to permanent disabilities, according to Children's Medical Center of Dallas.

They are the stories we too often hear. A 5-year-old girl who dies after wandering into a neighbor's back-yard swimming pool. A teenage boy who drowns while swimming with friends in an Ellis County rock quarry.

"Drowning is quick and quiet," says Patti Rhynders, director of injury prevention for Children's Medical Center. "There's no splashing and yelling. And it happens in the amount of time it takes to answer the phone or grab a towel."

Yet, drowning is preventable. The most important way to prevent drowning is to create layers of protection with fences, pool covers, gates, alarms and other barriers to keep a child from getting to the pool, note safety experts. And particularly for children under 5, drowning prevention most often relies on the watchful eyes of parents, who must be vigilant in their supervision.

Still, there are many questions parents have about pool and lake safety. What type of safety equipment to buy? Should a child swim with floaties? How can I keep my family safe when swimming at someone else's pool?

Nothing will drown-proof your child. But a good way to reduce the chances of a water-related tragedy is for parents to be prepared and ready to act quick.

Some lake reminders

Most child and teen drownings happen in lakes, rivers, streams and ponds.

Often, the person was drinking, diving or being dared to do something that led to tragedy, says Patti Rhynders, director of injury prevention at Children's Medical Center of Dallas.

These are among the most important things to remember when hitting the lake:

Always wear a personal flotation device when boating or jet skiing. They are an especially good idea of you don't know how to swim well. Safety experts estimate 85 percent of boating-related deaths are preventable through the use of Coast Guard approved life vests. In the most recent drowning cases at area lakes, none of the victims were wearing safety vests.

Be aware of the water depth in lakes or rivers each time you enter or allow children to go into the water. The underwater landscape, particularly with the area's recent heavy rainfall, can change to create a sudden drop-off that wasn't there before.

Create layers of pool safety

Nearly eight of every 10 kids involved in swimming-pool accidents were missing for no more than five minutes before they were found in the pool. And most accidents occur in a pool owned by the child's family, relatives or friends, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

These statistics reinforce the need for pool owners to make it hard for children to reach the water. New products available at area pool supply stores and online are designed to create "layers of protection" to deter a curious child.

"Parents underestimate a child's developmental abilities," says Patti Rhynders, director of injury prevention for Children's Medical Center of Dallas. "They don't think they can open the sliding glass door. It's like a baby rolling off a bed. The day they become strong enough to open a door is when they are strong enough to do it. Put locks and alarms on the doors and windows leading to the back yard and a fence separately around the pool."

Here are the "layers of protection" safety experts recommend.

Layer 1 - Limit access to the pool area
Safety experts recommend alarms on doors and windows as a first line of defense to alert you if a child leaves through a door. Door alarms emit a high-pitched sound, different than other household alarm systems. The alarm should be installed about five feet above ground level so that a child cannot reach it.

Layer 2 - Create a pool barrier

A safety fence that separates the pool from the house provides a physical barrier. The structure should be a non-climbable, five-foot tall fence with openings no more than four inches wide so children cannot squeeze through the spaces.

A strong pool safety cover (power-operated are the safest and easiest to use) anchored into the deck allows a child to walk across the cover without falling into the water.

Other important safety tools include self-closing and self-latching fence gates, side gates and doors leading to the pool or spa area. The locks should be above a child's reach (at least 54 inches high). Gates should open outward and should never be propped open.

Layer 3 - Install a pool alarm

A pool alarm can alert you that a child, pet, neighbor or intruder has entered the water. The PoolGuard Pool Alarm (PoolGuard, about $240) features an electronic sensor that sets off a loud, pulsating alarm that can be heard in the pool area and inside the home. The company, which also sells an above-ground pool alarm system, recently received high marks from Consumer Product Safety Commission tests of underwater alarms. The Prevent Laser Perimeter Pool Alarm (CSI, about $600) creates a light beam fence around the pool. When the beam is broken, an alarm sounds. These alarms should not replace a safety fence.

Some pool owners use audio-visual monitors, similar to those used in baby nurseries. A remote camera transmits both sound and video to a monitor in the home. The sound feature can alert the parent if a child starts pushing a chair or some other heavy object toward the fence.

Equipment specialists also advise pool owners to check and test all electronic devices that protect your pool at least weekly. Make sure you have plenty of extra batteries.

Safety equipment - such as a life hook, life ring and safety rope floats - should be poolside staples.

"A pool should be something that people enjoy and not look at with fear," says Gerry Karmele, vice president of marketing for Los Angeles-based Leslie's Swimming Pool Supplies. "We are trying to build a fail-safe system. Obviously, we are not going to achieve 100 percent, but every device we can use in concert with the others is just going to increase the safety factor of the pool and give the pool owner peace of mind."

Helen Bond is a Dallas-based free-lance writer.