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Best practices to prevent drowning topic of California Water Safety Summit in Newport Beach

Chris Carlson speaks during the California Water Safety Summit.
Chris Carlson, a co-founder of the Ben Carlson Memorial and Scholarship Foundation, speaks during the California Water Safety Summit at the Newport Beach Marriott on Monday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The second annual California Water Safety summit, a two-day event, kicked off at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel and Spa Monday morning with the announcement of the formation of the California Water Safety Coalition.

The coalition is a fledgling organization that seeks to unite nonprofits, advocates and public safety personnel in imagining and advancing best practices for drowning prevention. It’s a joint effort between the local Ben Carlson Memorial and Scholarship Foundation and the ZAC Foundation, a nonprofit based in Fairfield, Conn. that focuses on water safety.

Chris Carlson, co-founder of the Ben Carlson Memorial and Scholarship Foundation, said the death of his son, Ben — a Newport Beach lifeguard who died saving a distressed swimmer in 2014 — was the catalyst that brought him into the discussion of drowning prevention and water safety.

“What I did see in the wake of his accident was all these amazing people working on all of these different things … I’m an engineer and consultant by profession, I saw this and it was like, ‘What are we doing to align these efforts?’” said Carlson.

Jeff Boyles, Newport Beach fire chief, speaks.
Newport Beach Fire Chief Jeff Boyles delivers opening remarks during the California Water Safety Summit on Monday, the first of the two-day-long event.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The first summit was held in 2019, though organizers hadn’t yet precisely defined the foundation’s goals. So they reached out to statewide groups that dealt in water safety and, eventually, learned of the ZAC Foundation through its executive director, Megan Ferraro.

“All these people were doing great things in their own right, but could we do anything to align it and accelerate it and just get everybody driving in the right direction in each of their various expertise in water safety?” Carlson said.

The hope was to hold a follow-up convention in 2020, but the pandemic struck. Workshops to determine the goals of what would eventually become the California Water Safety Coalition were organized in September 2021, and they began planning for the summit in October.

A beach on Memorial Day weekend in 2020.
Beachgoers practice social distancing while sunbathing near the Newport Pier in Newport Beach during Memorial Day weekend in May 2020. The summer season is usually the apex for water rescues in local communities.
(Raul Roa )

Rob Williams, a co-chair of the rescue and CPR working group for the U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan, said the focus of the 2022 summit was to bring together stakeholders into the same room and establish networks between them.

“When I go talk to the state guards or I talk to [city officials], we all speak the same language and we understand each other, but when we go talk to a pool person? Or a lake person? We might not be talking the same language,” said Williams, who is also a former Newport Beach chief lifeguard. “But, we’re saying the same things.

“This is what we feel is important about this coalition; it’s to bring everybody together and learn so that people that are doing pool work in Northern California can affect things down here. Then, the life jacket loaner program on the Russian river is similar to life jacket programs that the Harbor Department is doing.”

Tessa Clemens, with the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, speaks via Zoom.
Tessa Clemens, with the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, delivers statistics via Zoom during the California Water Safety Summit at the Newport Beach Marriott on Monday, March 21.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

In California, the state Department of Developmental Services reported drowning is a leading cause of injury-related deaths in children under the age of 5. In California pools alone, about 35 children between 5 and younger died in 2019.

This is also a trend that is true nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in children between 1 and 14.

Locally, the height of rescue season for lifeguards in Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach and Newport Beach is during the summer, when tourists as well as local residents recreate in the ocean.

In Laguna Beach, lifeguards have performed an average of 5,000 rescues annually since 2015.

In 2021, Newport Beach lifeguards performed 2,184 rescues and took preventive action 79,943 times. In Huntington Beach, there were 3,551 rescues last year and teams responded to 8,451 preventive action calls.

“In Newport Beach, we’re deeply impacted by these [drowning-related] tragedies, whether they occur to local families or people who are visiting from other parts of the country,” said Newport Beach Mayor Kevin Muldoon. “We have a heightened awareness of the real loss that occurs from drowning.”

Karen Cohn, a co-founder of the ZAC Foundation, speaks.
Karen Cohn, a co-founder of the ZAC Foundation, speaks during the California Water Safety Summit at the Newport Beach Marriott on Monday, March 21. The foundation was founded in 2008 after Cohn’s 6-year-old son, Zachary, died in a pool drain entrapment accident.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Fire Chief Jeff Boyles said the department has been pushing for more CPR training throughout the community to “bridge the gap” between the arrival of paramedics and lifeguards and life-threatening incidents as they occur.

“I think it’s important that all public safety professionals bring awareness to drowning,” said chief lifeguard Brian O'Rourke. “It’s preventable. Through public safety, education and prevention and response, we can reduce or eliminate the numbers. Bringing a coalition of people from all sorts of disciplines such as pools, oceans, companies and all these foundations that we could bring awareness to this and hopefully make a dent, especially in Southern California.”

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