Hillsborough agencies work together to reduce child drowning deaths

May is National Water Safety Month, but it’s important for parents to keep this in mind every day of every month: it can take less than a minute for a child to drown.

“I don’t think people really realize that drowning actually is silent,’’ says Sharon Finotti, director of aquatics at the Brandon-based nonprofit High 5, Inc. “You see it in the movies that people look like they’re splashing around. That’s not how people drown. Actually, they’re still and they just go under the water and you don’t know that they’re gone.”

Drowning is the number one cause of death of children between ages 1 and 4, according to the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. To help prevent tragedies, High 5’s swimming instructors teach free water safety lessons for any child in Hillsborough County between ages 3 and 18, no matter their family's income. Over eight sessions, they learn basic skills in lessons that emphasize teaching children how to save themselves if they get in trouble in the water.

Called Water Warriors, the program is funded by the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, the government agency that provides funding to nonprofit organizations and programs that help improve the lives of children and families in Hillsborough. Children’s Board Executive Director Rebecca Bacon says the agency has always stressed the need to keep children safe in and around water. 

“Unfortunately, according to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner, there were nine child deaths due to drowning in 2023,” Bacon says. “I also saw in Florida there were 97 child drowning deaths in 2023.’’ 

Building confidence

Finotti says most of the children in Water Warriors have never had swimming lessons. Many are afraid of the water. The best way to get them over that fear, she says, is to regularly expose them to water in a controlled environment such as Water Warriors.

“Qualified swimming instructors have those tools to help them get past that,” Finotti says.

Sharon FinottiWater Warriors is designed for beginning swimmers and covers water safety education and skills such as floating, breath control and water confidence.Once the children overcome their fear of the water and build confidence, Finotti says it’s important to teach floating skills so they can safely get to the side of a pool if needed. 

“That’s the key,’’ she says.

The kids realize there’s nothing to fear and water is fun, Finotti says. 

“However we must always remind children that no one should swim alone and that an adult has to always be present and watching them swim,” she says.

Safety tips

Parents and children also go through eight sessions of water safety education on land, where they are taught CPR, boating safety, the proper way to put on a life jacket, and how to prevent tragedies in home swimming pools. They talk about the threats in Florida, where water is everywhere: lakes, rivers, retention ponds, the Atlantic Ocean on one coast, the Gulf of Mexico on the other, and home swimming pools in many backyards.

At home, families with pools should have exterior locks on all doors, placing them too high for little children to reach, and alarms that sound when the doors are opened. The pool should have a fence around it with self-latching locks. Finotti advises getting an alarm that floats in the pool and sounds when something falls in.

“The other thing is having a water watcher,” she says. “A designated water watcher is key.”

Whether you are at the beach, outside at the pool, or enjoying the outdoors at a lake or river, designate someone to watch children at all times. Finotti says that means no iPads and no cell phones. 

“They shouldn’t be reading or sunbathing,” she says. “They should be watching those children; that is their only job.’’

Parents and guardians should also know how to swim, Finotti says.

“Getting adult lessons is very important as well because if your own child gets in trouble or somebody else’s child gets in trouble and you don’t know how to swim, how are you going to save them?” she says.

Sometimes the parent is unaware that the child is not in the house, Bacon says.

“So if a child is missing, it’s critical to check the bodies of water right away, whether it’s pools, ponds or other bodies of water," she says. "Make that the first place that you look because the timing can be critical.’’

Parents should also know how to perform CPR, Bacon says. Families can take CPR classes at Children’s Board Family Resource Centers throughout the county.

Legislature approves new state program

The Florida Legislature made strides toward reducing child drownings by passing Senate Bill 544 this year, Bacon says. It creates a program within the Department of Health that offers vouchers for low-income families to pay for their children’s swimming lessons. Those lessons can be crucial. A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development concluded that formal swim lessons reduce the risk of drowning for children ages 1 to 4 by 88 percent.

“That may not be up and running for the summer, but it’s excellent progress for future resources,’’ Bacon says.

For more information on Water Warriors, go to High 5, Inc or call (813) 689-0908.

For more information on the programs and services the Children's Board of Hillsborough County funds, go to 2024 Family Guide.
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Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.