What Went Right In Phoenix

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As usual, the summer of 2006 in Phoenix felt hot enough to melt rebar. What was unusual about this summer in the valley of the sun was that from April through September, not one child drowned. In a city with hundreds of thousands of pools and a history of close to 20 children under the age of six drowning every year in recent summers, that's no small accomplishment.

"That was an evolution of community work that involved hospitals, parents of drowning victims, valley-wide firefighters, people in the pool industry and elected officials," says Fire Chief Bob Kahn.

While drowning-prevention efforts in Arizona didn't start when the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Central Arizona (DPCCA) was created in 1989, the nonprofit group has taken them to the next level. The DPCCA includes representatives from the American Red Cross, every fire department in Maricopa County, the APSP, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and others. John Harrington, a hospital CEO who was president of the coalition for almost 16 years, says, "The biggest impact we had initially was working to get barrier codes in place. And we have accomplished that over the years in all but one city in Maricopa County. Phoenix came on board immediately and still has one of the toughest barrier codes in the country."

The key piece of language the DPCCA has pushed communities to include in their codes is that there must be a barrier between the home and the pool in homes where there is a child 6 years or under. "Our favorite and best option for the barrier is a 5foot permanent fence with a self-closing, self-latching gate," says Harrington. "Most of these accept motorized pool covers that meet ASTM standards, and most cities accept self-locking and latching devices on doors and windows that lead to the pool area that are 56 inches above the ground. Those are the biggies. A couple of cities allow alarms. We don't really support that."

Fenced In — And Safe

Recognizing the importance of pool fences in saving young lives, the United Phoenix Firefighters Association, the charitable arm of the firefighters union, started an Adopt A Fence program, which donates fences to families in need. "We install pool fences and barriers in low-income houses that are owner occupied and have kids age 6 and under residing in the home," says Rich Bauer, director of community programs for the association. "A lot of these homes were built with pools back in the '60s and '70s in neighborhoods that used to be affluent, but now they're not very desirable neighborhoods."

In 2002, the first year the association gave away fences, it raised $15,000 and installed 15 pool fences. In 2006, it raised about $250,000 and installed about 110 fences. "Overall, we have installed over 220 fences in five years in high-risk neighborhoods," says Bauer. "It has helped dramatically. We get aerial photographs of these neighborhoods and identify the ones with pools so we're not wasting our time. Then we knock on the door and if they fit the criteria, we measure right then and there and have a pool fence with a self-closing, self-latching gate installed by a licensed contractor."

Bauer says the goal is to make this a statewide program. "We are partnering with the Valley of the Sun United Way because the program is getting so much money that we can't manage it out of this office. It's really taken on a life of its own because of how successful it is. First we're going to take it countywide, and then maybe down to Tucson, and then each firefighters association can manage their own program and dip from this pool of money when they see a need."

The United Phoenix Firefighters Association and the DPCCA also financially support water safety events throughout Maricopa County coordinated by local fire departments.

Block, Watch And Learn

Another major piece of drowning prevention is education — teaching kids and parents how to be safe around water. Tiffaney Isaacson, the water safety coordinator for the Water Watchers program at Phoenix Children's Hospital, says her program's message emphasizes a three-pronged approach, as do many others. "We use the ABCs of water safety: adult supervision, barriers between children and water, and classes for adults and children and swimming lessons at the appropriate age.

"Today, we find that in two-thirds of the cases here in Maricopa County, children are drowning when they're not wearing swimsuits. They're wearing street clothes," continues Isaacson. "That tells that they were not expected to be near the swimming pool, so really emphasizing a multi-layered approach to safety, and especially emphasizing barriers, has made the difference I think."

Water Watchers is best known for its Water Safety Day event held every year in early spring. Other communities in Arizona and beyond have modeled their water-safety events after this one. Isaacson describes how it works: "We bring in about 1,200 first graders to a local community college, and we teach them water safety through a combination of the event itself and an in-class curriculum program. The curriculum program addresses existing Arizona state academic standards, so teachers aren't taking time away from teaching grammar, cause and effect, sequencing, etc. They're teaching all those things to the children, but they're doing it in the context of water safety.

"We teach the kids three lessons before the event, approximately once a week, and then they come to the event, and then three lessons after the event back in the classroom. The curriculum program is really designed to involve the parents. For example, in one of the activities they sit down with their mom and dad, and they draw a picture of their backyard and a swimming pool, and they talk with mom and dad about where the fence should be and where the phone should be and where the adults should be. With all these things we really try to draw the parents in and make water safety a family subject.

"At the event itself there are about six activities, including a swimming pool show, where they see people in a pool practicing safe rescue techniques and safe behaviors around the pool. And they talk about what we should do if we find a pool gate open. There's also a carnival area, a music show and a craft activity.

"One of my favorite aspects of the event is the fire truck row," adds Isaacson. "Firefighters are very passionate about water safety here; it's very difficult for firefighters to run on drownings, and they don't forget them. So just about every city in the valley sends us a fire truck and a crew for the day, and that's no small feat. They all line up and the kids can get on the trucks and talk to the firefighters about fire safety and they think that it's neat. The adults understand the significance of seeing a fire truck from every city in the valley. I mean, there's a dozen fire trucks there, or more. It really shows a communitywide commitment to water safety, and I think that's what it really takes to prevent drowning. You can't do it by yourself — you need collaboration."

To foster that collaboration, Water Watchers started a purple ribbon campaign. "We ask everyone to wear a purple ribbon, and in the month of August, which is Drowning Impact Awareness month here, to think about water safety and to remember the impact of drownings and neardrownings," says Isaacson. "Because when a child drowns, of course it affects the family and friends, but it also affects neighbors, people who go to that family's church, the firefighters who run the call and people who work with those parents. The circle becomes very large."

August was chosen as Drowning Impact Awareness Month because people are not as focused on water safety by the end of the summer, according to Isaacson. "June, July and August are when we're losing most of our children," she says, "so we really need them to maintain a focus on water safety throughout the season."

Isaacson also noted a new resource in the Phoenix area called the Halo Foundation. "This organization works to prevent drowning and also acts as a resource for people who have had a drowning or a near drowning. There is a huge need for this. The devastation that families and the community experience is so severe."

Big Kids, Too

Young children are not the only ones who need reminders to be safe around water, so many organizations also coordinate events and classes for adolescents. "Last Sunday," says Bauer, "I had a program where I got some art students from the high schools, and they painted water safety messages on the wall of a thrift store, which raises money for Hacienda HealthCare, which provides care for near-drowning survivors. And the winner of this contest is going to get their art shrink-wrapped on our van that goes to all of our community events."

Considering that almost 5.5 million Hispanic residents live in Arizona, Bauer also stresses it's important to spread the message of water safety in Spanish, as well as English.

On Guard

It's been said that in Phoenix, a pool is not a luxury, it's a necessity. "In Phoenix, the pool is the centerpiece of the home," says Fire Chief Kahn. "It's 120 degrees here in the summer, and I don't think you'd want to live in Phoenix without a swimming pool."

That said, Kahn and all the others working to prevent drowning feel their mission is ongoing. "The challenge we have is we haven't turned the corner," he says. "This is just an issue that keeps giving, and if we let our guard down, people become complacent, they don't put up the pool fences or they don't learn CPR. They don't watch their kids around water or take time to educate their kids about water safety, and then you'll see the drownings come back."

"Last summer was fantastic, and, yes, we're having an impact," says Harrington. "But don't let that fact make us complacent because the issue is still there and then of course we did see some drownings over the winter. Until we go five years without a fatality or a near-drowning, there's work to be done. We've been at this for almost 18 years now, and if you look at the statistics, the raw numbers are fairly flat. But if you look at them as a percent of population, we're definitely having an impact. So we're proud of our accomplishments, but not resting on our laurels."


In addition to water safety programs coordinated by the Phoenix Children's Hospital and the United Phoenix Firefighters Association, Phoenix has Dave Munsey. Because some messages are important enough to be conveyed every day, for many years Munsey, the weatherman for the Phoenix Fox affiliate, has ended his forecasts with a warning to parents to watch their children around pools. "He's been very proactive on water safety for a number of years," says Tiffaney Isaacson, the water safety coordinator for the Water Watchers program at Phoenix Children's Hospital. "He's been talking about water safety way before it became the norm, and now other newscasters have begun to follow suit, and for many years they've also been telling parents to watch their kids around water."


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