Pool Safety Tips from Coach Westberg

Pool Safety Tips from Coach Westberg

By: Donna Vickroy, Daily Southtown

As pool and beach season gets underway safety experts remind water lovers not to have a false sense of security because a lifeguard is on duty or because they know how to swim.

The World Congress on Drowning states that an estimated 66% of the more than 360,000 people who drown worldwide each year knew how to swim, said Dave Benjamin, executive director of the nonprofit Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (www.glsrp.org).

People who know how to swim assume that means they can't drown, Benjamin said.

That explains why people take risks, such as swimming alone or beyond their physical capability, and why so often would-be rescuers become drowning victims, he said.

As beaches and pools open for the season, he reminds patrons that in June beach water is cold and visitors likely haven’t been swimming for months.

“Their swimming endurance may be down,” even if their confidence is not, he said.

Know a survival strategy

Being able to swim is not the same as being able to survive a drowning event, he said.

Benjamin has given classroom presentations in Oak Lawn, Palos Heights and Blue Island this past spring. He said he always begins with an informal survey that typically reveals about 90% of the students say they know how to swim. But, he added, less than 5% know a drowning survival strategy such as “Flip, Float and Follow” when caught in a current or floating on your back and breathing deeply for added buoyancy.

“Knowing how to swim reduces your fear of water. But people often overestimate their swimming ability,” Benjamin said. “Males overestimate it by about 50 percent.”

Benjamin said a Red Cross report showed 54 percent of Americans who say they can swim don’t have basic swimming ability to survive a water emergency. The criteria for survival included five points: 1) resurfacing after falling into water over your head, 2) treading water for one minute, 3) spinning 360 degrees to spot an exit, 4) swimming 25 yards or length of the pool to get to that exit, and 5) climbing out of water without assistance.

“We want people to know how to swim but we want them also to understand their true swimming ability and that there’s a distinction between knowing how to swim and knowing how to survive,” he said.

Most people can run but that doesn’t mean they have the ability to run a marathon, he added.

Drowning is one of the leading causes of accidental death, particularly for children and particularly for males, in the nation and the world, he said. Eighty percent of drowning victims are male, he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in five people who die from drowning in the United States are children age 14 and younger. In addition, the CDC states, for every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries.

These are things every parent should know and are reasons to “watch your kids like a hawk,” Benjamin said.

There were 117 Great Lakes drownings in 2018, he said, making it the deadliest year since the GLSRP began tracking such deaths in 2010.

Already, 2019 has claimed 16 Great Lakes drowning victims, with the latest victim being pulled out of Lake Michigan at the end of May.

Robert Westberg, aquatics director and swim coach at Tinley Park High School, said the No. 1 rule is “to never swim alone. Some people think because they’re a good swimmer they’re not ever going to get in trouble but you should always have somebody there with you.”

While at the beach, he said, be aware of undertow areas. They may be marked but you can also avoid areas that appear to be streams pulling the water, he said.

“Know what to do if you get caught in an undertow — swim to the side, with it, not against it, until you’re out of it,” he said.

For parents, Westberg said, don’t assume your kids will be safe just because a lifeguard is on duty.

“Every summer you hear about a child drowning but the lifeguard didn’t see it,” he said.

Children can get knocked over by a wave or by other swimmers. They can wade out too far at a beach of a zero-depth pool, he said.

“My youngest is 10, and I still watch and make sure she’s OK even though she’s a very good swimmer,” he said.

Lifeguards already have a tough job, he said, don’t add to the difficulty by being a distraction.

“Don’t ask the guard questions or misbehave causing them to pay attention to you instead of the people in the water,” he said. “Their sole duty is surveillance of that pool.”

And don’t hover under the guard stand, he said. “A lot of times people think I’m right next to a lifeguard, I’m going to be OK but one of the hardest areas for a lifeguard to see is right underneath him when he’s on the stand.”

What drowning looks like

In the movies, Westberg said, drowning victims typically flail and yell for help.

In reality, a drowning person often just goes under and doesn’t come up again, he said.

“Once you see somebody in a treading position, with feet underneath them and no more forward movement, the next step could be drowning,” he said.

Benjamin said because the physical struggle often takes place under water, as the victim’s legs and arms “climb a ladder” or “paw at the water,” onlookers are often unaware the individual is in trouble.

For the victim, Benjamin said, panic is the first stage of drowning.

“It’s a panic attack in the water. If you don’t understand that you’re likely to exhaust all your energy and submerge,” he said. “That’s why you need a survival strategy.

“If you want to survive a drowning incident, you have to stay at the surface and continue breathing, by treading water and floating or having a flotation device with you,” he said.

Zack Radtke, manager of White Water Canyon in Tinley Park, said, lifeguards “look for stressed faces or kids who look like they’re struggling, not necessarily overt signs but signs someone may be getting tired or look like they’re starting to bob up and down.”

Because many kids, including his own, would stay in the water all day, facilities such as the water park build in mandatory rest times.

“At the top of every hour, we do safety checks. We make it known that this is a great time for parents and children to reconnect, to check in with each other and make sure everything’s OK,” he said.

For people with backyard pools, Radtke said, make sure the area is clear and visible and that there is a locked gate preventing access to the water.

He added it’s never too late to learn how to swim. The park district, he said, offers group and private lessons.

“We’ve had adults come and get private one-on-one lessons,” he said.

In addition, he said, people should acquire basic life saving skills.

“Make sure you’re vigilant with your kids. I understand kids want freedom and parents want them to have it but you should keep an eye on your children at all times,” Radtke said. “Even if they have a life jacket on.”

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