By JIM WALSH AND Cecilia Chan
GSN Staff Writers
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.
Last year in Gilbert, two boys, 2 and 3, drowned in backyard pools.
So far this year, there have been two near drownings of children 5 and younger in Gilbert, according to the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona. It was unclear if the two involved pools.
Although child drownings in Gilbert are no higher than elsewhere in the East Valley, the town stands out for its lack of a law requiring residential pools to have their own fencing or barrier.
Most Maricopa County cities require fences around pools, although there are exemptions that allow pool covers and other devices instead.
In Gilbert’s code, a pool can be entirely enclosed by a fence or by the walls of a single-family home.
The code predates the state code and is grandfathered in, explained Larry Taylor, town plan review and inspection manager.
He said when Cynthia Dunham was town mayor from 1997 to 2001, the Building Department was tasked with coming up with a stronger pool barrier code.
“I don’t remember the specifics of what the code looked like but it was definitely more restrictive than our current code,” he said. “The Town Council that existed at that time passed the new pool barrier ordinance (but) there was an outcry from the citizens and a referendum drive followed with enough signatures gathered to force a vote.”
Gilbert voters ended up keeping the current code in place, he said.
Nearly two decades and over 100,000 additional residents later, town leaders don’t seem particularly eager to change that.
“Water safety is critical to protecting our residents,” Mayor Jenn Daniels said in a statement. “Beyond our current code, our team works hard to promote safety tips like the ABC’s of water safety — Adult supervision, Barriers, Classes — to ensure that residents have a comprehensive approach to water safety.”
Councilwoman Brigette Peterson said she would not favor changing the law.
“The Town of Gilbert is a mix of residents — families, single people and couples without children,” she said. “Residents are smart enough to know if they need an extra barrier.”
Councilwoman Aimee Yentes said she believes families with children 12 and younger should have a fence around their pools.
That said, she added, “However, I do not believe as a town we should force all Gilbert residents to install a pool fence.”
She said the most important aspect of drowning prevention is adult supervision, and that cannot be mandated to the degree necessary to prevent every tragedy.
“Many drowning accidents occur inside the home in bathtubs, sinks, toilets, etc,” she said. “These cannot be realistically avoided with anything except diligent adult supervision.”
She said neighboring municipalities that mandate a separate barrier around residential pools still have accidents despite the additional requirement.
Councilman Scott Anderson was willing to study the issue before making a decision.
He said he would support collecting data showing the history of drownings in Gilbert and analyzing how the drownings occurred.
“An additional fence can place financial burden on the homeowner and it may not be the most effective means to prevent drownings,” he said. “If the additional fence is the best means to prevent drownings I would be inclined to favor its inclusion.”
Gilbert Deputy Fire Chief Mark Justus recommends barriers, even if they are not required by the 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, with children remarkably creative in their ability to defeat obstacles in their quest to jump into the 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.’’
“If you have a pool and you don’t know where your child is, go there first,’’ he said.
Drowning-prevention advocates warn the backyard swimming pool poses about the same threat to pre-schoolers as a loaded gun.
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, said Melissa Sutton, the coalition’s president.
“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. “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.’’
Among the state health department’s three effective interventions to avoid child drownings is a recommendation for a four-sided isolation fence around a pool. The other two are focused adult supervision and teaching children to swim by age 8.
According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, children ages 1 through 4 are at the highest risk for drowning.
In a society full of distractions, advocates warn against complacency as drowning remains a chronic problem, with statistics demonstrating a regular pattern of children and adults dying throughout the East Valley and statewide each year.
They recommend adults to swim with another person, to not over-estimate their swimming prowess 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.
“It comes down to supervision with the pediatrics. The only reason they are drowning is because we are not watching them,’’ Sutton said.
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 she knows such achievements can vanish in only a few heartbreaking seconds.
“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.
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 five to seven 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, with even good swimmers encountering some sort of accident that proves fatal.
Schmidt said another student told her that her parent watches her from inside the house through a window, a dangerous and ineffective practice.
Instead, authorities recommend that parents either be inside the pool with children 5 years old or younger or within easy touching distance, she said. At minimum, an alert parent has to be poolside and not staring at a cellphone or grilling some hamburgers.
At any pool party, there needs to be a sober adult who is a capable swimmer watching out for other swimmers, Schmidt said.