Drowning Prevention & Water Safety

Sept. 15, 2021
Daniel Pentkowski outlines how Henderson, NV, firefighters partner with non-fire agencies to facilitate drowning awareness and promote water safety.

In 2011, the Henderson Professional Fire Fighters (HPFF) saw a need for a community-based safety campaign that centered on drowning prevention. In southern Nevada, thousands of private pools and community pools are enjoyed by the more than 50 million visitors and residents. Henderson (and more broadly Las Vegas) is known for high summer temperatures and a long-lasting summer season.

Although a great way to beat the heat, various risk factors are associated pools, particularly in conjunction with children. As a firefighter with the Henderson, NV, Fire Department since 2003 and as president of HPFF (Local 1883), I have been on duty to answer far too many emergency response calls that follow a submersion incident or fatal drowning. These are some of the worst calls of my career.

Arriving on scene—seeing family and friends in turmoil and knowing that there might be an innocent life lost—is heart-wrenching. Yet, as firefighters, we have a job to do. We are there to provide emergency assistance and transport, to try to save a life. Although many calls end happily, tragically, many don’t.

Drowning-prevention’s evolution

The HPFF created the Safe Pools Rule! campaign, because drowning is 100 percent preventable. Safe Pools Rule! aims to educate the community on the importance of water safety and to provide tips to prevent submersions and drownings.

Over the years, the campaign has been altered, to better reach our ever-changing audience and community. We held walk-and-knocks with the American Red Cross of Southern Nevada, press conferences at local water parks, educational classes, demonstrations and more to communicate our message to Henderson residents. We partnered with various organizations that align with our mission and received ample support from local government with each annual relaunch of the campaign. In addition to strong strategies and partnerships, we capitalize on the reach of our local and regional media and work closely with a multitude of outlets to further expand our audience.

In conjunction with 2018’s campaign, we held a press conference. Our partners that year included the Henderson Fire Department (HFD), the City of Henderson Parks and Recreation Department, Henderson Hospital, and the Henderson Mayor and Council. Together, we represented the “Safety Squad” and its mission to spread drowning awareness and to promote the importance of water safety. (For 2020’s campaign, we partnered with Lifetime Fitness, which teaches 55,000 people how to swim each month nationwide.)

Because the campaign is rooted in community activation, we invited residents, mom bloggers, PTA representatives, school officials and the media to attend the press conference. Each member of the Safety Squad, which included Henderson Mayor Debra March, Henderson Councilman Dan Stewart, Henderson Hospital CEO Sam Kaufman and Henderson Fire Department Chief Shawn White, spoke on the importance of water safety and why this campaign was important to them.

Henderson Hospital’s partnership, which began in 2018, represents the critical part that the healthcare industry plays in the campaign. Kaufman used the platform to share insight from the healthcare perspective and to reiterate the importance of community-based campaigns that are focused on the well-being of our most precious assets, our children.

Stewart shared a personal story that spoke directly to the mission of the campaign. While enjoying a family member’s residential pool in the summer, Stewart’s grandson fell into the pool without a sound. His parents, family and friends, all enjoying themselves, didn’t see nor hear him

go into the pool. The next thing everyone knew, the young boy was rescued from the bottom of the pool and 9-1-1 had been called. The HFD answered the call, immediately tended to the boy and rushed him to the nearest hospital. He fully recovered.

It’s moments such as these, where mindful parents and supervisors take their eyes off of the water for a second and a tragic incident occurs, that we hope to avoid. To demonstrate how quickly this can happen and how intensely terrifying it can be, we incorporated a mock drowning into our press conference, which was held at a local community pool.

Visuals are vital

For the demonstration, we had a child go down the waterslide, triggering a response from the lifeguards once he entered the water and wasn’t actively swimming. The lifeguards then performed their emergency water response duties, which included calling 9-1-1. An HFD truck and crew then arrived, executing protocol for a submersion and talking through the steps for the audience. The child was then escorted to the truck on a gurney, signaling the transport to the hospital.

Visual components, such as this mock drowning demonstration, are vital to any safety campaign. Our audience saw a submersion firsthand, the rush of panic that followed and the response from the first responders, which all make the scenario feel real. The local media in attendance filmed the demonstration to air during their broadcasts. A videography team prepared public service announcements for us to distribute to local media and across social media.

Educational materials

By partnering with local leaders and companies, our message can reach a multitude of audiences while remaining committed to the mission, drowning prevention. In addition to visual demonstrations and strong partnerships, we utilize educational materials and collateral to help us to share our message.

When we initiated the campaign, we designed and printed door hangers that were placed on door handles of homes in targeted neighborhoods, with high percentages of residential pools and community pools, during walk-and-knocks. These walk-and-knocks got the HPFF and our partners out into the community, to build trust and recognition with our residents and to share the message of Safe Pools Rule!

In the past four years, we have continued to design and print both door hangers and posters to help us to further spread our message. In 2018, we asked our partners to display the collateral in their facilities. By doing that, our message not only came from us and from the relaunch event but from our trusted partners, too, and was seen throughout the summer to emphasize the never-ending importance of water safety.

Throughout the Safe Pools Rule! campaign, we have used educational tools, such as the ABC & Ds of drowning prevention as well as the 3 Ps for water safety. These are fun, engaging tools.

The ABC & Ds of drowning prevention are:

  • Adult Supervision: Always designate a supervisor to watch children in the water
  • Barriers: Install a 60-inch-tall fence that has a self-closing gate and can’t be climbed around the pool
  • Classes: Take CPR lessons and enroll your child in swimming lessons
  • Devices: Have nonswimmers wear flotation devices and have rescue tools nearby in case of an emergency

The 3 Ps resemble the ABC & D’s:

  • Patrol: Always designate an adult to actively watch the children who are in and near the water (most tragedies occur in seconds)
  • Protect: Install four-sided pool fencing, door alarms, locks and other safety measures to provide defensive barriers between your child and the pool
  • Prepare: Create your summer safety plan ahead of the game by enrolling in child swimming lessons and adult CPR classes and by ensuring that every water-watcher knows how to call 9-1-1 in case of an emergency

We use these educational tools, because they are in the form of an acronym, a common memory aid. The key to a successful acronym is to keep it simple, which is why we use the 3 P’s.

As first responders, it’s our duty to have a presence in our local communities and to work to ensure the safety and well-being of our residents.

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