Water safety is of heightened concern each summer as families, swimmers and hikers head to beaches, creeks, waterfalls and backyard pools to cool off.
NYSUT members are among those who are on call to protect and educate.
For others, water safety is an unexpected call to action, as it was this summer for Oneida Teachers Association member Peter Gillander, who jumped into action to rescue a child.
Gillander was enjoying time with friends at Pixley Falls State Park when he noticed two children struggling in the current at the base of the waterfall. Gillander’s friend Greg Hoag, an off-duty New York State forest ranger, rescued the boy while Gillander rescued the girl, according to reports from the Department of Environmental Conservation. Both children survived.
“It happened so fast. We heard the girl scream,” Gillander said. “There’s a kind of like a ledge. Greg ran along the side of the ledge. I went directly into the water. We basically got to the kids at the same time. The boy had gone under … we couldn’t see him with all the foaming of the (falls).”
Gillander and Hoag were able to rescue the siblings and help their mom to her vehicle. “I called 911 to let them know what happened and to expect them at the hospital,” Gillander said.
The mom took the children to Rome Hospital to help prevent a secondary drowning, which can occur from water inhaled that has settled in the lungs — something that many people do not realize can happen hours or even days later, Gillander said.
Water safety education a priority for union members
For some NYSUT members, water safety is a professional calling — as it is for the members of the New York State Lifeguards Corps who are trained in rescue and education at the state’s ocean beaches and parks. The 1,000-plus lifeguards are members of United University Professions, a higher education union affiliated with NYSUT. They take on swimmer safety and rescues on Long Island’s ocean beaches and at lakes, rivers, ponds and pools in New York’s state parks.
Ryan Clark, a social studies teacher with the Bellmore-Merrick United Secondary Teachers, Inc., serves as a professional lifeguard and new president of the Lifeguard Corps. He is in his 23rd year lifeguarding at Jones Beach.
"There's no more fulfilling outcome...than to pull someone out of the water who wouldn't have made it if it weren't for you," he said.
The lifeguard teams can log as many as 20 rescues a day, he said, from "simple rescues" of someone panicking to pulling people out who are unconscious. Unfortunately, he said, there are now opiate-related rescues as well.
One of his strongest tips is to keep small children away from water when they do not know how to swim. "There have been drownings in the bathtub and backyard ponds in addition to pools, lakes and in the ocean," he said. The Lifeguards Corp is working with an organization called End Drowning Now to develop more awareness on this issue, he said.
The most common mistake that swimmers and non-swimmers make, Clark said, is "being overconfident around the water and not sure of the depth of the water in the pool/by/lake before they go in. "In the ocean, many overestimate their ability to swim in the surf-rip current conditions. It is easy to get disoriented when being thrown around by a large surf and panic."
For others, water safety is an unexpected mission. In Long Island, Richard and Samantha Specht were both teachers in the Smithtown Teachers Association when their 2-year-old son Rees drowned in a backyard pond. Inspired by the kindness of a local landscaper after the tragedy, the family started a kindness project in their son’s name. The ReesSpecht Life Foundation has since evolved water safety program as well. The Long Island-based water safety programs are provided at no charge to schools, day cares and libraries.
“We’ve reached 75,000 students since 2013,” said Richard Specht.
The foundation partners with Safety Swim of Long Island to pay for swim lessons for underprivileged children.
Since the tragedy, Specht said he learned that children can begin swimming lessons as early as 3 months old. He stresses vigilance, noting that children can drown in a bucket of water, or a toilet bowl.
Awareness is key to staying safe in the ocean or any body of water, lifeguards say. Especially important, if you are caught in a rip current, follow the above steps to get out safely.
Water Safety 101
- Be cautious around the ocean shoreline, rivers and lakes. Cold temperatures, currents and underwater hazards can make a fall into these bodies of water dangerous.
- If you go boating, wear a life jacket. Most boating fatalities occur from drowning.
- Prevent unsupervised access to the water.
- Install and use barriers around your home pool or hot tub. Safety covers and pool alarms should be added as additional layers of protection.
- Ensure that pool barriers enclose the entire pool area; are at least four-feet high with gates that are self-closing, self-latching and open outward, away from the pool. The latch should be high enough to be out of a small child's reach.
- If you have an above-ground or inflatable pool, remove access ladders and secure the safety cover whenever the pool is not in use.
- Remove any structures that provide access to the pool, such as outdoor furniture, climbable trees, decorative walls and playground equipment.
- Keep toys that are not in use away from the pool and out of sight.
Source: American Red Cross