For Good: Hillsborough County agencies partner to prevent child drownings

As summer nears and families head outdoors for fun and frolic, it's a good time to review what more you can do to protect children from drowning. 

Have you taught the kids to swim or taken them for lessons? Have you secured your pool? Are you extra vigilant around water and while boating, including avoiding excess consumption of alcohol? Do you know CPR?

Every year we hear about the tragic accidental drownings of children in the Tampa Bay area and across Florida. In 2016 alone, 73 children drowned in the state, according to the Department of Children and Families, including four in Hillsborough County. Eight children drowned in Hillsborough in 2015.

Indeed, drowning is the leading cause of death in Florida for children ages 4 and under. And, Hillsborough County is historically among three Florida counties to lose the most kids to this quick and quiet death. 

In an effort to reduce and, hopefully, eliminate incidences of child drowning, the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County is sponsoring a collaboration of various agencies, including the Tampa YMCA, the Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Department, Tampa Parks and Recreation,  St. Joseph’s Hospital, The Safety Rock Foundation and the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center. All are working together to educate children and their parents or caretakers about water safety, CPR, and various hazards that can mean the difference between life and death.  

Tampa YMCA leads the way

Amanda Walker, the Association Aquatics Experience Executive at the Tampa YMCA, says that when these agencies come together to figure out what measures can be taken to stop such preventable deaths, their discussions center on finding solutions. 

“What do we do to slow that statistic down ... with the goal being to eliminate it?” says Walker. “Everyone that sits around the table when it comes to these drowning prevention programs is very passionate that if we can save just one life then we’re doing something right. ... The information received from the medical examiners office for Hillsborough County to say that in the span of one year that the numbers have dropped by 50 percent - it’s good, but if you talk to us around the table, we’ll also tell you that the [number of]children who still lost their lives are too much.”

The Tampa Metropolitan YMCA serves as the lead agency for a program funded by the Children's Board called the Mobile Swim and Water Safety Education Program, in which swim instructors go to properties that have an onsite community pool and provide free swim lessons, water safety education and CPR lessons for members of the area.

The Y, the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center and Tampa Parks and Recreation go to community pools to offer swim lessons for neighborhood children, and St. Joseph’s Hospital along with the Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Department teach CPR training. Residential management is responsible for arranging the liaisons between these organizations and those in their communities. 

“With the combination of swim lessons and water safety, we up our chances that a child may pause for even a brief second before getting themselves into a situation that could be dangerous,” says Walker. 

Adults armed with CPR skills can help a victim until medics arrive, and the swim lessons are designed to teach kids to know what to do and how to avoid panic in order to get themselves out of a potentially life threatening situation in the water. 

“The mobile lessons are really based on the skills side of it,” Walker says. “Trying to teach children what to do if they were to find themselves in trouble, unable to touch, or too far away from the side, or they fall in. The program really focuses on being able to jump in, calmly surface and gather a breath, then being able to do a combination of swim, float, swim, until they can get themselves to safety.” 

Making water education fun, accessible to preschoolers 

Rocky Trahan, Founder and CEO of the Brandon-based Safety Rock Foundation, says the issue of water safety got on his radar when in a short span of time in 2010 he heard of five instances of children drowning or nearly drowning within a 30-mile radius of his home, and then by June that same year there were a total of 8 kids in the Tampa Bay area who’d died as a result of drowning.  

He was compelled to take action.

Due to Trahan’s conviction that all children should have the opportunity to learn to swim and should be taught about the dangers of water, his organization offers outreach education and sponsors children to participate in Safety Rock’s Swim Like a Dolphin program, which procures swim lessons for kids whose families can’t afford them. 

“Money should never be an issue when a child needs to learn how to swim,” says Trahan. “And some of these swimming lessons are so expensive. We live in Florida. We’re 300 percent above the national average for child drownings, and it’s just absolutely embarrassing and we have to do something about it.” 

Their current project is called Operation KinderKids. It’s geared toward 3-to-5-year-olds and involves going to 33 preschools in Hillsborough County in 2017, along with their dolphin mascot, Rocky. The goal is to teach the kids 10 basic safety rules along with handing out things like Kid Care Kits, which are provided by the Children’s Board and include a water safety DVD, educational information, a water watcher tag and a whistle, and literature about what different beach warning flags mean. 

While Trahan says he’d like to believe that the collaborative efforts put forth by his and the other agencies have been effective in preventing child drownings, he says, “The Children’s Board should get the majority of the credit, because they listened to the problem and  took the initiative to do something about it, and I think they should get all the credit in the world for that.” 

A cause that brings the community together

Besides the agencies whose work is sponsored by the Children’s Board, other community organizations contribute to this cause. The Hillsborough Water Safety Team worked on legislation that requires signs at community pools to remind people about the possible dangers, and the Tampa Bay Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier has been the spokesman for the “Be Water Smart From the Start” campaign, starring in a public service announcement which is shown locally, both at home games and on bay area TV stations. 

St. Joseph’s Children Wellness and Advocacy Centers contribute to outreach and education through the grant, and another very important and unique part of what they do is provide door alarms at no cost to anyone whose home is accessible to water and where children will regularly be, whether it’s a parent, grandparent or caregiver.

This can be a vital tool in preventing child drowning. Of the 73 children that drowned in Florida last year, 35 of those happened after the child got out of a home without an adult realizing they slipped out -- until it was too late.

Paula Scott, PR Director at the Children's Board, says that having all of these organizations working together is paramount to the mission.

“It’s a whole bunch of different pieces to the puzzle that we’re trying to put in place, not just the swim lessons themselves, although that’s critically important, but there are other pieces to that grant that make it really cool and make it so that these agencies are working together when they normally wouldn’t have been.”

Read more articles by Amy Beeman.

Amy Beeman is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.