Commentary: In memory of lifeguard Ben Carlson, make water safety a priority this spring and Sunday

Each year, the weather gets warmer and backyard pools and our incredible beaches start to beckon once again. Although always a concern, this time of year causes many to reconsider how to keep our kids, and ourselves, safe around the water.

This year, I hope those thoughts turn to action, preventing the tragedy we saw last year in which Orange County reported a staggering 107 fatal and non-fatal drowning incidents, 36 of which involved children under the age of 5.

I have reason to be hopeful. Last month, more than 140 water safety advocates and professionals assembled at Marina Park in Newport Beach for the inaugural Southern California Water Safety Summit, a one-day “forum for collaboration on practices, programs, and policy that reduce drowning and aquatic injuries in our community.”

The summit served in part as a tribute to Ben Carlson, a 15-year veteran Newport Beach Lifeguard, who, in 2014, became the first city lifeguard to die in the line of duty. To save a distressed swimmer, Carlson dived into turbulent waters in dangerous surf conditions near the Newport Pier. The swimmer was successfully pulled from the water and recovered, but the dangerous waters overtook Carlson.

Carlson’s passing is still difficult to bear. The silver lining is that his name and his story are catalyzing people to pay closer attention to water safety.

Ben Carlson documentary seeks to highlight a local hero and lifeguards’ perilous profession »

Co-hosted by the Ben Carlson Memorial and Scholarship Foundation and Hoag’s Project Wipeout Program, the water safety summit reached capacity quickly, with attendees hailing from all over California, as well as Arizona, Washington, Idaho, Utah and New York. I was impressed by how many professions were represented – from firefighters, EMS and lifeguards to physicians, nurses, public health workers, law enforcement, swim instructors and more. Each had come to hear best practices and share information about messaging, programs and interventions to prevent drowning and aquatic injury.

Throughout the summit, people shared a singular desire to push forward policies and partner on various campaigns to prevent drowning and aquatic injury. The expressed motivation to increase collaboration across professional and regional divides, was inspiring. Through unified efforts, grounded in evidence-based practices, we can better promote water safety efforts and start to reduce the number of drowning incidents we see year over year.

The majority of drowning incidents in Orange County occur in May through August. At the summit, experts and advocates discussed several important components to reducing those numbers, including policy solutions and water safety education.

Talk to children and family members about water safety. Have a plan around water, and remember the following tips to keep your kids happy, healthy and safe:

  • Active adult supervision: In 2018, 29 Orange County drowning incidents were due to a lapse in supervision. Active adult supervision means distraction-free supervision of kids in or near the water: avoid reading, using a cell-phone, chatting with friends, or drinking alcohol as any of those activities could take your eyes away just long enough for your child to slip under the water. It is a good idea to designate a sober adult who knows how to swim as a “water watcher” to maintain constant watch of anyone in the pool.
  • Four-sided barriers: Install and maintain proper barriers around the pool. Use multiple layers of protection such as safety covers, gate alarms, door alarms or motion-detection devices. Make sure all gates are self-closing, self-latching and open outward away from the pool.
  • Learn how to swim: It is never too late to learn how to swim; there are multiple adult swim classes in the area.
  • Take an age-appropriate CPR course: If you have children look for a pediatric or child CPR class.
  • Swim with others: Adults and children should always swim or surf with a buddy, regardless of ability. Being in the water alone is dangerous at any age.
  • Swim near a lifeguard at the beach: When you visit the beach this summer, always swim in front of an open lifeguard tower. When you arrive, go check in with the lifeguard and ask about the conditions and where it is safe to swim. Learning rip current safety is a good step for anyone who spends time at Orange County beaches.

Although these tips are commonly shared, getting people to follow through is an enormous challenge that requires meaningful collaboration across multiple sectors. In the wake of the summit, I believe we are improving. So, parents, grandparents, teachers and pediatricians, please start talking about water safety. Have a great summer!
William Koon is the project coordinator for Project Wipeout, a water safety program run by Hoag.