Among the good things about residential swimming pools is the fact that so much research has been done on pool safety. One outgrowth of that research has been the development of a vast number of products and devices that aim to keep your pool safe.
There are fences designed with self-closing, self-locking gates and rigid covers that slide over the pool like horizontal garage doors. There are even several electronic alarms of various designs. One is worn on the child's wrist like a watch and sounds upon contact with water. Others sound an alarm when movement in pool water is detected.
"Nothing is foolproof when it comes to protecting children from drowning in a pool," says Mark Ross, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). "That's why we recommend that pool owners provide layers of protection."
Children between the ages of 1 and 4 are most at risk for fatal and nonfatal drowning, according to the CDC, which tracks drowning deaths. CDC data show that in children most drownings occur in residential swimming pools. In adults, most drownings occur in natural waters.
But the majority of child drownings occur when children get into the pool on their own. The CDC found that "most young children who drowned in pools were last seen in the home, had been out of sight less than five minutes, and were in the care of one or both parents at home at the time."
Figures from the CDC show that from 2001-2002, 775 children aged 14 and under died from drowning. While drowning rates have slowly declined, drowning remains the second-leading cause of injury-related death for children.
'Layers' of Pool Protection
The first and most important layer is constant, adult supervision during swim times. Other protective measures are important, too, says Ross. Here are some of their recommendations based on extensive product testing:
The pool should be surrounded by a fence at least 4 feet tall.
The fence should have self-closing and self-latching gates with latches that are out of the reach of children.
The fence should completely separate the pool from the house.
The door to the pool should have an alarm.
Install a rigid, power safety pool cover.
Install an underwater motion swimming pool alarm.
"We recommend at a minimum the type of alarm that attaches to the side of the pool and actually detects motion under the water, rather than those that monitor surface movement," said Ross. "Surface alarms can be triggered by wind moving the water, and you can get more false alarms."
Ross adds that the CPSC also tested a type of alarm that attaches to a child's wrist like a wristwatch. There are several models available. Some sound an alarm if the wrist band gets wet. Others sound when the band has been under water for a few seconds.
"We did testing on the wrist alarms," said Ross. "And while they are good as a backup layer of protection, we don't recommend them as highly as the underwater motion sensor because of the false alarm problem and because they are not as reliable."
The CPSC's evaluation of various types of pool alarms is available online at www.cpsc.gov/library/alarm.pdf.
Protection Backs Up Vigilance
"It's true that there is value to electronic alarm systems as part of the layering of protection," says B. Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association, which provides training and certification for lifeguards. "But what worries me about the alarms is that people might think they don't have to keep close watch if they have an alarm. That's absolutely wrong. Never, ever leave a child alone in a pool even for a few seconds."
The unfortunate fact of the matter, however, is that a CPSC study on how child drownings occur found that supervision can fail. The investigation looked at deaths of children under age 5 in Arizona, California, and Florida who had drowned in home swimming pools. Here are some of the findings.
Who was in charge of supervision at the time of drowning?
69% of the accidents occurred while one or both parents were responsible for supervision.
10% were adults other than the parents.
14% were sitters.
7% were siblings.
What was the location of the pool drowning?
65% were in a pool owned by the child's family.
22% were at a relative's.
11% happened at a neighbor's.
Where were they last seen?
46% were last seen in the house before being found in the pool. Of these, 15% were thought to be sleeping.
23% were last seen in the yard, porch, or patio, not in the pool area.
31% were last seen in the pool or pool area.
Teach Your Child to Swim
Teaching a child to swim would seem to add a further layer of drowning protection. But there is no evidence that swimming ability reduces a child's chance of drowning. In fact, many of the drowned children in the CDC statistics knew how to swim.
"Learning to swim at the earliest reasonable age is a good idea," said Brewster, of the Lifesaving Association. "But kids who drown are often under 4 years old, and even if they can swim," they aren't strong enough to get themselves up and out of the pool in time.
Brewster adds that if you have a pool, "you should have a rule that the child wears a Coast Guard-approved life jacket whenever the pool is being used."
In addition, he advises that you hire a lifeguard whenever you have a pool party.
"Maintaining safety for swimmers and non-swimmers requires constant vigilance, and there is just too much going on at a party for any of the participants to provide that."
John Casey is a freelance writer in New York City.