Staying afloat on swim safety: Preparation, attention best practices to avoid tragedy in the water

Todd Peters, head swimming and diving coach, talks with The Forum on how to stay safe in the water.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

FARGO – Local aquatics directors say they’re used to hearing they’re “mean.”

No running. No horseplay. No diving. No water toys or flotation devices. No children under a certain age or height in deeper pools.

When Dave Klundt, aquatics director for the Fargo Park District, started managing his hometown pool while in college in the 1980s, people complained he was too strict.

Then, at a neighboring town’s pool, a teenager dove into too shallow water, broke his neck and drowned, Klundt recalls.

“I don’t think it’s possible to be too safe at the pool,” he says.

At the Moorhead municipal pool, kids must pass a swim test – swimming the width of the pool without a lifejacket – before they can use the diving board or slide.

“Many parents get upset when we won’t allow their child to go down the slide,” says Melissa Discher, recreation supervisor for Moorhead Parks and Recreation. “It helps if parents can understand why rules are in place. That we really have the child’s best interest in mind.”

With Memorial Day marking the unofficial kick-off to summer, kids soon will be jumping into area lakes and pools. Fargo pools will open Saturday. Moorhead neighborhood wading pools open June 3 and the municipal pool opens June 5. West Fargo’s outdoor pool typically opens in mid-June.

With this fun in the sun comes potential danger, especially when parents or children hold misconceptions about swim safety.

A recent American Red Cross survey found many Americans lack basic water safety skills, as 93 percent were unable to identify the correct order of steps for helping a swimmer in danger.

Eleven percent of adults polled think it’s OK to read or talk on the phone when supervising children in the water; 67 percent believe water wings keep kids safe in the water.

However these sorts of flotation devices are not Coast Guard approved as life-saving devices.

“Unfortunately too often parents unknowingly put these things on kids thinking they will keep their kid safe and that’s never a guarantee,” says Todd Peters, head swimming and diving coach at Minnesota State University Moorhead. “That’s when accidents happen, when parents make assumptions like that.”

In addition to arm floats, popular buoyant water aids include foam kickboards, swim seats and flotation swimsuits. These may give children a comfort level in the water that allows them to build swimming skills, but parents shouldn’t rely on them.

Most pools don’t allow these sorts of devices in the water except perhaps during specified family swim times.

“They’re good as a training tool or teaching tool to use with an instructor there or a parent who is hands-on,” Peters says.

“There is nothing better than a parent watching their children. Vigilance is the most important aspect of water safety.” Peters says.

Even Coast Guard-approved life jackets shouldn’t be relied on completely, the Red Cross says. Parents also need to assure the life jacket fits properly, appropriate for the child’s size and weight and doesn’t ride up over the neck and face.

In addition to constant parental supervision, the best thing to help keep kids safe in the water is teaching them to swim, local aquatics directors say. Parent-child swimming lessons are offered as young as 6 months.

Local park departments, the YMCA, Concordia College and MSUM all offer public swimming lessons.

Britt Selbo, aquatics director for the YMCA of Cass-Clay, encourages parents to give children chances to swim year-round, unstructured play time as well as formal lessons.

Often one day of a swimming lesson session is dedicated to water safety, an important topic for parents to bring up with their kids, too, Discher says.

“I think it’s necessary to talk to kids about water safety and why it’s important to follow the rules and what to do if something bad does happen,” she says.

Recognizing a drowning victim

Drowning doesn’t look like it does in the movies, says Melissa Discher with Moorhead Parks and Recreation.

A drowning swimmer won’t flail his or her arms and shout for help.

“Their speech becomes secondary to their breathing,” Discher says. “They’ll extend their arms out and push down to the sides.”

Warning signs that somebody is in trouble include the swimmer swimming vertically in the water. The head is low and tilted back to keep the airway open, and there is no evidence of any kicking. The swimmer may start to bob up and down.

“When children are in the water and playing, they’re making noise,” Discher says. “When it gets quiet, that’s when parents need to become concerned.”

According to the American Red Cross, when a swimmer is in distress, you should first shout for help, then reach or throw the person a rescue or flotation device and tell them to grab on to it, and then call 911 if needed.

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