Pool safety illustration

Pool safety illustration (Illustration by Violet Lemay / July 2, 2012)

"TWEEEEEET!" The shrill sound of the lifeguard's whistle should stop dozens of wet little feet right in their tracks. But does it? According to lifeguards, not always.

With hordes of sunscreened swimmers flocking to pools and beaches around Baltimore, it's high time for a refresher on water safety basics. Kids (and adults) might get tired of hearing "No running around the pool!" over and over again, but there are good reasons behind those rules.

To stay safe at the pool this summer, listen to the lifeguards. We talked to lifeguards and local water-safety experts to get their 10 top water safety rules, many learned when things went awry.

Parents: Report for duty

Linda Fabian, director of aquatics at the Big Vanilla pool in Arnold, has more trouble enforcing rules with parents than with their children. "Most of our issues," she says, "are with parents who want to be 'off-duty' at the pool. Controlling children's behavior isn't difficult, but making sure parents know they're responsible for their children can be."

Even when several lifeguards are on duty, parents are the best first line of defense for small children who may slip under the water. According to Fabian, parents should be in the water with their kids as much as possible and, at a minimum, should stay no more than an arm's length away from small children.

Walk, don't run — especially on steps

A visit to the first aid office for bandages is a quick way to ruin a good day at the pool. "We always tell kids to walk up the steps, especially on the slide," says former Elkridge Club lifeguard Riley Barger. "But last summer, one little boy ran up the steps, slipped and fell backwards. He ended up with a bunch of cuts."

Slides are for sitting

Slides are fun, but they can be dangerous if kids don't follow the rules. Barger saw a boy cut his face after standing on the edge of a slide, facing backwards. "He slipped and hit the bottom of the slide," she explains, "and hurt his face."

Don't push

Tossing or pushing a friend into the pool seems like a great game, but it can end in real trouble. In Virginia Beach in 2010 a young woman (and former lifeguard) named Rachelle Friedman suffered a serious spinal cord injury after being playfully pushed into a pool by a friend. Friedman, now a motivational speaker, was paralyzed by the accident.

"It's a tragic story, but Rachelle is a great person" says Tom Gill, Deputy Chief of the Virginia Beach Lifesaving Service. "You don't have to be scared at the pool, but you do have to be careful. With cement decks, there's always a possibility of getting injured."

Follow the diving signs

Similarly, Gill stresses the importance of paying attention to signs indicating where diving is allowed. "Don't dive in the shallow end," he says, "and don't dive if you're not qualified. Diving injuries are some of the most serious medical emergencies we deal with."

Take turns on the diving board

Riley Barger agrees that being careful while diving is important. "There are always kids on the diving board and sometimes they don't wait for the person in front of them to swim out of the way. Usually it's just a close call — I've never seen anything bad actually happen, but it could!"

Know your limits

Even when kids aren't explicitly breaking the rules, they could hurt themselves, according to Barger. "Sometimes older kids try to do cool tricks, especially on the diving board, and they end up hurting themselves — it's easy to hit your head on the board. Tricks are fun, but you've got to know your limits."

Don't play games with your breath

"Let's see who can stay under water longest" is one of the oldest pool games in the book — but it needs a swift retirement, according to Gill. "When I was coaching high- school swimming," he says, "we used to do 'hypoxic' sets — we'd take no breaths for the first length, one for the second, two for the third and three for the fourth. One really excellent swimmer, a kid who was in great shape, went into cardiac arrest as he finished his fourth length. We did two rounds of CPR — he is fine now. But it was a major lesson learned. Just because you have the mental strength to push beyond your body's limits doesn't mean you should."

Don't mess around with lightning

Even if the weather seems nice, if lifeguards clear the pool for lightning, don't argue. The current from a lightning strike to the water may spread out in all directions, dissipating in approximately 20 feet — so if you are in the pool and the water is hit, you're in trouble. Lightning kills an average of 54 people in the U.S. each year, according to the National Weather Service. So when the lifeguard makes that call, listen.

Buddy up

Don't swim alone, says Gill, especially if you have a medical condition. In Virginia Beach, he has seen swimmers have diabetic and epileptic seizures while swimming, and fall unconscious for a variety of reasons. Even with a swimming partner, these situations are dangerous, but without someone to alert a lifeguard, they can be immediately life-threatening.

"Swimming is a sport for a lifetime," says Gill. "It's something you can do even when you're 100 years old. Plus, of course, it's fun! But you have to be careful."

Fabian agrees, "Kids see the pool as a fun playground," she says, "and it is fun. But there are hidden dangers, as well." But as long as swimmers pay attention to the rules — and to those lifeguards — summer's long lazy afternoons at the pool will be filled with sunshine.
Drowning, by the numbers

10 Approximate number of people who drown each day in the U.S. (not including boating accidents)

20 Percent of annual fatal drownings that affect people under 14 years of age

1-4 Age group with the highest drowning rate

80 Percent of fatal drowning victims who are male

1 Age at which children can start learning to swim

88 Percent that you can reduce the risk of drowning for children between 1 and 4 years old if you give them swimming lessons, according to a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study
Know your risks

In addition to lack of swimming ability, the biggest factors increasing risk of drowning are:

Insufficient fencing: A four-sided fence separating a pool from a house and yard reduces a child's risk of drowning by 83 percent compared to three-sided property fencing alone. Fences should be a minimum of four feet high to minimize danger.

Lack of supervision: Drownings can occur even in small amounts of water — and even in pools with lifeguards. Parents need to pay very close attention, especially to small children.

Location: Most children between 1 and 4 drown in home swimming pools, but overall, 57 percent of drownings take place in "natural water" settings (lakes, rivers and oceans).

Drinking on the water: Alcohol use is a factor in 70 percent of adult and adolescent deaths on the water.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development