A lifeguard keeps watch as swimmers enjoy a beautiful summer...

A lifeguard keeps watch as swimmers enjoy a beautiful summer day at the Timberline Park Pool in Brentwood. (July 10, 2011) Credit: Charles Eckert

Beach and pool season may be under way, but that's not to say parents and caregivers can kick back and chill. At least not if they are the designated child watchers during beach outings and pool time.

That's because drowning season is also upon us.

Since 1999, Newsday has recorded the swimming-pool drowning deaths of 27 children ages 9 and younger. Among them, several drowned during family gatherings, others when a parent or caregiver was working on a laptop, helping or watching other children, picking up the yard or left teenage siblings to supervise.

Such drownings show that even the lapse of a few seconds can result in tragic headlines and a devastated family, water safety experts say.

This as multi-tasking has become the norm: We carry potential distractions in the form of smartphones, tablets, audio entertainment devices -- and more parents are tethered to their offices, even during down time, says Kate Carr, president of Washington, D.C.-based Safe Kids USA, an organization working to prevent unintentional childhood injury.

No matter, she said. When you're on beach or pool duty, "you have to be attentive 100 percent of the time. There's no middle ground." Parents and caregivers may think, "it won't happen to me, but it can and it does," she says.

Indeed, a study of 2,104 child and teen drowning deaths in 25 states from 1996 to 2011 found half directly related to poor supervision by caregivers of the younger children, according to the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths. Top reasons caregivers were not watching at locations that included pools, bathtubs and open water: Distracted, in 561 cases; absent, 331; asleep, 112; alcohol use, 38; drug use, 30.

Maintaining constant visual contact and being attuned to subtle signs are essential, water safety experts say.

That's because real drowning victims don't look and sound like their television counterparts. Parents may be counting on hearing some commotion that will cause them to look up in time, says Bobby Hazen, founder of the Long Island Drowning Prevention Task Force. But drowning can be "a silent event," he said. A child just slips under the water with no cries or arm waving.

So, how to reprogram that fractured attention span and learn to focus exclusively on kids at play? Here are tips from area lifeguards and other experts:


If you have child-watching duty, move your beach chair right up to the water's edge, says Bruce Meirowitz, president of the New York State Lifeguard Corps. If the kids move 20 yards down the shore, you move with them. The same goes for pool duty, says Meirowitz, 61, of Sound Beach. Sit or stand right at the edge of the pool.


No reading a book, glancing at Facebook, reviewing a report. If someone comes up to talk, don't turn to make eye contact, but keep your eyes on the water, Meirowitz says.

Even on their breaks, "lifeguards are great at talking to people and never looking at them," he says, as they keep scanning the water.

Speaking of lifeguards, just because they're on duty doesn't mean caregivers can leave off supervising, says Theresa M. Covington, director of the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths.


To keep themselves from zoning out, lifeguards engage in detailed observation and "mentally become part of the activity," Meirowitz says.

That includes noticing swimmers, what they're wearing, how proficient they are at swimming, where they go, what they do. Lifeguards are "making a lot of mental notes" and "having a conversation in their minds," says Cary Epstein, second vice president of the Jones Beach Lifeguard Corps. An example: "that swimmer just swam there, turned around and is now going back out."

To keep alert, it's also helpful to shift position every few minutes and stand up and stretch, says Epstein, 31, of Hewlett.


Hazen says he's heartened to see more parents hiring lifeguards for pool parties, as well as organize "water watcher" rotational duty in which the designated parent wears a tag or badge that's handed off at 15- to 20-minute intervals to the next watcher. Such a badge is an important "visual cue," says Meirowitz, indicating you've accepted the responsibility and that "I'm the one."


All this concentrated focus does sound intense, but those with just one or two children to monitor can have some fun. "Get into the water and enjoy the water with your child," Carr says. It's one of those chances to just "be in the moment."

Latest videos

Newsday LogoCovering LI news as it happensDigital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months