Festival offers kids ways to water safety

‘Drowning is preventable’ and swimming lessons can help

By Craig Brown, Columbian metro editor

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As a firefighter and member of the regional technical rescue team, Bill Dunlap has seen his share of emergency scenes. A lot of them are more wet than hot.

“We do more water rescues every year than working structure fires,” said Dunlap, who on a busy Sunday for emergency services workers took time to demonstrate his equipment to hundreds of children at the third annual Water Safety Festival, sponsored by the Kids Club Fun and Fitness business in Salmon Creek.

Every summer, the kids club teaches 1,000 local children how to swim. But it’s those who don’t learn that make the water safety festival worth presenting, said Colleen Bittner, the club’s manager. Like Dunlap, she knows that warm summer days can also bring tragedy.

“It breaks my heart because every drowning is preventable,” said Bittner, who promotes the Safer3 program developed by the Swim For Life Foundation. The three “safers” are:

Safer kids. It’s important for children to learn how to swim. Even children who are too young to walk can get used to being safe in the water. “In every other country in the world, that’s what they do,” said Bittner, who added that 70 percent of people who don’t learn to swim by age 6 will never learn.

Safer water. It’s important for parents to make sure that unsupervised children cannot get into a backyard hot tub, pond or pool. Locks, pool covers and pool alarms are ways to prevent drowning.

And when children do get into the water, it’s important to have a designated “water watcher” whose focus is on paying attention to the swimmers, not a cellphone, a book, conversation or other distractions.

“If everyone is watching, no one is watching,” Bittner said, adding that drowning is often silent, with no cry or waving from the victim.

Safer response. For example, “I can’t tell you how many people come to Kids Club and don’t know CPR,” said Bittner, who recommends first aid training for all parents. Also, the program recommends keeping a phone at hand when people are swimming, and having a family emergency action plan.

Most of the festival’s activities were set up to reinforce those three themes. At one station, kids learned to safely throw a buoyant object to a person struggling in the water, and not to try to swim to them. A panicked person can overwhelm a would-be rescuer, putting both of them in peril.

Another thing to teach your kids is how to get in and out of a boat safely, using a three-point-touch method. Hold on with both hands while placing one foot at a time into a boat.

Finally, Bittner said, it’s important for children to wear a properly fitted life jacket around open water, including on the beach or at the lake. To ensure a life jacket is properly fitted, have the child try it on, then pull up on the shoulders. If the jacket rides up, it could actually be dangerous, holding the child’s head under the water in an emergency.

Though the message was serious, the children mostly had fun. Jackson Curtis, 4, enjoyed throwing a life ring into an inflatable boat while his mother, Heather, supervised.

Jackson will start swimming lessons at the kids club today, but he wanted to come to the safety festival Sunday for a preview.

“He’s very excited. It’s his first time,” Heather Curtis said. She in turn was glad to have the opportunity for both of them to learn a little more about water safety. The family plans a vacation to California later in the summer, and there will be some hotel swimming pools for Jackson to enjoy. It’s mom’s goal to be able to tell him to “be safe and have fun in the water.”

Craig Brown: 360-735-4514; craig.brown@columbian.com.