July/August Issue
June 22, 2015

Water safety education a priority for union lifeguards

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
A member of the Jones Beach chapter of the New York State Lifeguards Corps/UUP patrols the beach. Miller Photography.
Caption: A member of the Jones Beach chapter of the New York State Lifeguards Corps/UUP patrols the beach. Miller Photography.

This summer, keeping your eyes on the water is just as important as keeping your eyes on the weather. Drowning is a leading cause of unintentional injury and death worldwide, and the highest rates are among children, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

While vast oceans and swift rivers pose their share of possible danger, it is the jewel-like backyard pool that carries the most risk. Assigning someone to sit poolside as a designated watcher is an essential step to protecting children around a pool.

"More children are lost in backyard pools than any other type of drowning," said lifeguard Bruce Meirowitz, president of the 1,120-member New York State Lifeguards Corps, a local chapter of United University Professions, a NYSUT affiliate. Lifeguard Corps members are responsible for swimmer safety and education from Long Island to Niagara Falls to the North Country. They work at state parks, through the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Parks and Historical Preservation; and for the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

According to CDC reports, each year an average of 3,800 people are victims of fatal drowning, and an estimated 5,700 people are treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments for nonfatal drowning. Death rates and nonfatal injury rates were highest among children under age 4, who most commonly drown in swimming pools.

A vital step in making a pool safe is to designate someone to sit on the pool deck and supervise swimmers — particularly during backyard parties and barbeques, advised Meirowitz.

When a child is inside a house and you hear a noise, he said, you can predict that a cry will come within several seconds. The pool, however, "is a silent killer."

Other summer water dangers come from riptides in the ocean; swift currents in rivers; slippery rocks in creeks; and more.

"The first priority of the lifeguard is prevention," said Meirowitz. "We educate all day long."

As a veteran lifeguard at Robert Moses State Park on Long Island, this retired teacher has logged 48 years as a lifeguard — successfully passing his lifeguard test every year. A slow day on this beach, he said, can range from zero to five entries in the water for lifeguards, but a busy day — of which there are many — can mean 75-100 entries into the water. There are also rescues on the beach itself — such as the time a man dug two tunnels in the sand, which buried him alive. Lifeguards frantically dug him out using their bare hands, and found him in time to put an oxygen mask on him. His one protruding hand had already gone limp.

On Long Island, schools from Levittown to Smithtown to Bayshore and Moriches participate in the Early Education Water Safety Program provided by the Long Island Drowning Prevention Task Force. The NYS Lifeguards Corps works with the task force on ocean water safety, Meirowitz said. "Get a grip on the rip" is a major mantra for the union.

Safety and drowning prevention around rip currents is also a recurring theme for members of the Tobay Life Guard Association, a newer NYSUT affiliate. The local's 70 members work as ocean lifeguards from Memorial Day through Labor Day for the Town of Oyster Bay.

"We try to raise awareness," said local president Steve Whelan. "We want people to be aware of circumstances that create them."

Rip currents are a powerful channel of water that flows away from the shore. They often form at breaks in sandbars and near jetties and piers. They can be narrow or more than 50 yards wide. To identify a rip current, look for differences in the water color, water motion, incoming wave shape or breaking point compared to adjacent conditions.

"We tell parents and kids, if it's bringing sand out it's going to bring people out," Whelan said. Awareness is also key. At one beach, swimmers may be able to walk out 100 yards and the water is still at waist height; at another beach you may go only 25 feet and be in water over your head. "Be aware and always ask the lifeguard about conditions before you go out. The beach is a fun place to be and to have a good time, but you have to respect mother nature."

The most important water safety action to take? Learn how to swim, and have children learn how to swim.

There are families whose lives have been forever altered by a drowning. In 2012, toddler Richard "Rees" Edwin-Ehmer Specht was lost in a tragic drowning accident in a backyard pond. His family, including his father, Richard, a Smithtown TA teacher and NYSUT member, created the Rees Specht Life Foundation in 2013. A focal point of their generous "pay it forward" mission is to help promote water safety. They have teamed up with the LIDP Task Force to raise funds for school water-safety programs. Their new "ReesSpecht the Water Campaign" will also raise money to provide swim lesson scholarships for families who cannot afford lessons.

"Almost every parent I know has tremendous misconceptions about drowning and what it is really like. I was just as ill-informed prior to losing my son. I thought that all the safety precautions we had around our house were sufficient, but they weren't," said Specht, who teaches eighth grade science at Great Hollow Middle School.

"The only real way to stop drownings is to educate people about water safety and give children — starting as early as six months old — swimming lessons. Knowledge isn't just power in this case; it is literally the difference between life and death."

Chart: 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.
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