As temperatures begin to soar, drowning prevention advocates are warning that the backyard swimming pool poses about the same threat to toddlers as a loaded gun.
But the pool can also become a deadly weapon for adults, as demonstrated annually by a chronic toll of avoidable deaths.
Far fewer children are drowning in Arizona than 30 years ago — when the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona formed to spearhead safety campaigns.
Nevertheless, the prevention advocates say their goal of zero drownings remains largely unrealized — even if Scottsdale hit this elusive target last year.
In a society full of distractions, they warn, complacency remains a chronic problem.
Statistics show a regular pattern of children and adults perishing throughout the East Valley and across the state each year, their deaths changing the lives of grieving relatives and even first responders forever.
Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe recorded 18 fatal drownings last year in 63 water-related incidents, according to the Children’s Safety Zone website. Phoenix recorded another 11 deaths in 56 water-related incidents.
In 2017, the same East Valley cities recorded 17 fatal drownings in 49 water-related incidents. Phoenix had 14 fatal drownings in 2017 in 55 water-related incidents.
The number of adults drowning was higher or equal to the number of children in all East Valley cities as well as Phoenix.
The adult drowning problem is far different than the classic case of a toddler tragically going under in the pool.
Drowning prevention advocates urge adults to swim with another person, to not over-estimate their prowess in the pool and to limit the use of alcohol and other impairing substances around water. They say physical emergencies can inflate the numbers, such as a victim suffering a heart attack or stroke.
Because of cooler than normal temperatures, some prevention advocates believe the summer pool season has been off to a slow start.
So far this year, two adults have drowned in Mesa, one adult has drowned in Chandler, one adult has drowned in Gilbert, four adults have drowned in Phoenix and no one has drowned in Tempe or Scottsdale, according to Drowning Prevention Coalition.
“It comes down to supervision with the pediatrics. The only reason they are drowning is because we are not watching them’’ as they plunge below the water, said coalition President Melissa Sutton.
“I think it’s just mindfulness. If they choose to be a pool owner, there is a higher level of responsibility. It’s like being a gun owner,’’ Sutton said.
Sutton and other drowning prevention advocates strongly support the use of barriers, generally fences around pools that are required by most Maricopa County cities, although there are exemptions that allow pool covers and other devices instead.
Although the Gilbert Fire Department has an extensive water safety program, Gilbert is one of the few towns and cities in the state that only require a fence around a yard, rather than a fence around the pool.
While nothing replaces the value of supervision with undivided attention, barriers create an important cushion to protect against a momentary lapse that could cost a child’s life, Sutton said.
“In almost every case we review, if there was a pool fence, the child would be alive today,’’ said Sutton, who sits on a Maricopa County child fatality review board.
She said drownings in Arizona have dropped significantly in the past 30 years, from 64.8 per 100,000 residents in 1988 to 8.4 in 2015 and 4.4 in 2017.
A July 2018 report by the state Department of Health Services said Arizona ranked first in drownings nationally for preschoolers in the mid-1980s, but now ranks fourth. Unusually long summers and about 300,000 residential pools statewide combine to create the threat.
The 2018 state Child Fatality Review report found that 35 children drowned in 2017, with the highest risk to children 1-4 years old. Twice as many males drowned as females.
The report recommended parent-child swim classes as early as 3 months old, alert parental supervision and barriers.
With the chronic problem continuing to linger, prevention advocates are focusing on the quality of supervision and overcoming complacency as residents hear the same message decade after decade. A new wave of residents and parents also need to be educated about drowning prevention.
Lori Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Scottsdale Fire Department, said she’s gratified about Scottsdale’s year without a drowning.
But Schmidt she knows such achievements can vanish in only a few heartbreaking seconds. The coalition reported that Scottsdale has had two pediatric water incidents so far this year though neither was fatal.
“It’s a lot of work and a lot of vigilance. I don’t know if there is a magic bullet to keep it from happening,’’ Schmidt said.
She added that Scottsdale preaches the same message as other cities about undivided supervision and layers of safety through pool barriers.
Schmidt, a past coalition president, said she sometimes hears disturbing comments from children about the lack of adequate supervision when she conducts pool safety classes in Scottsdale schools for kindergarten and first-grade students, about 5 to 7 years old.
“Every time I go to a classroom, I will have a kid say, ‘I know how to swim so my parents don’t watch me,’’’ she said. “The kids are telling me their parents are not watching their child in the pool.’’
She said this point of view is not correct because there are swimming mishaps all the time and even good swimmers encounter accidents that can prove fatal.
Schmidt said another student told her that her parent watches her from inside the house through a window — a dangerous and ineffective practice.
Authorities recommend that parents either be inside the pool with children 5 or younger or within easy touching distance, she said. At a minimum, an alert parent has to be poolside and not staring at cell phone or grilling hamburgers.
At any pool party, there needs to be a sober adult who is a capable swimmer watching out for other swimmers, Schmidt said.
“It’s a major issue, all the distractions,’’ said Michele Long, the Mesa Fire Department’s safety coordinator. “Everyone thinks they are watching their kids but life happens. I think people don’t understand the level of supervision.’’
Gilbert Deputy Chief Mark Justus recommends barriers — even if they are not required by his town — and an adult performing the same functions of a lifeguard at a public pool. He said the pool supervisor acts like a designated driver.
“The reason they drown is because we don’t have eyes on them when they go under the water,’’ he said.
Justus said barriers can “create a false sense of security,’’ if someone were to mistakenly think they take the place of supervision since children can be remarkably creative in overcoming obstacles to a pool.
But Justus agreed that barriers also form an important additional layer of protection that can eliminate a tragedy.
“I’m for any barrier because seconds count,’’ Justus said. “The barrier is for when supervision breaks down.’’
Mesa, Chandler, Tempe, Phoenix and Scottsdale all require that pools be enclosed. A state law also requires pool fences, but Schmidt said advocates believed it had too many loopholes, so cities passed laws of their own. The laws are outlined on preventdrownings.org.
In the summer, children tend to drown from a lack of supervision and are found wearing their bathing suit, Schmidt said.
Barriers become even more important in the winter, when children are found in pools wearing their usual clothes and no one is paying attention.
Battalion Chief Jeff West, a Chandler Fire Department spokesman, said a near tragedy occurred when a 12-year-old boy pulled a 6-year-old from the bottom of a pool. She has recovered.
“I think this shows that none of us are immune to this happening,’’ West said. “As parents and pool watchers, we are never going to catch everything, but we need to be there and to be diligent.’’