An Ounce Of Prevention To Subvert Drowning Deaths
November 18, 2022
Saving a life as an emergency dispatcher is an incredible skill in a profession suspended in a non-visual environment. A caller choking on a fish bone, for example, or a bystander jumping in a pool to rescue a child submerged in the water are situations where an emergency dispatcher can turn from potential tragedy to possible survival using PAIs and officiating timely response.
What about the emergency dispatcher who steps out from the headset and builds upon their 911 experience to circumvent a tragedy before it can happen? The emergency dispatcher recognizes a trend, develops a prediction of likelihood based on the observation, and conducts subsequent research with a goal to prevent an incident from happening rather than to correct it after it has started.
Communications Specialist Erika Lakey, EMD, ENP, Osceola Sheriff’s Office, Florida (USA), did just that. She applied the proverbial “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure” to reverse, or at least diminish, deaths by drowning among Florida’s pediatric population. During her 13 years with the department, she has been promoted from dispatch to training, and now is the support system specialist. She is also an avid swimmer, swim instructor, and former lifeguard at resorts in Tennessee (USA) and Florida. As a mother, she is particularly hypervigilant to her precautions necessary to keep children safe near and in water.
Her approach to prevention was through research.
Lakey submitted public record requests to Florida’s 67 sheriff’s offices in addition to police departments, asking for pre-pandemic to later-pandemic statistics. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, all non-essential businesses closed, including swim lessons. When Florida reopened, tourists flocked to the beaches and resorts. She compared the data with the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Department of Children and Family Services.
Her research—presented at the NAVIGATOR 2022 research poster forum—cited a 100% increase in drowning and near-drowning calls from 2020 to 2021 in tourist-heavy central Florida’s Osceola County. “This is the happiest place on earth, and then a family goes home with one less person,” she said. “A tourist does not look at safety hazards before coming to vacation.”
Drowning-related calls coming mainly from the west side of the county, home of several resorts including Walt Disney World and luxury rental homes, sparked a campaign to put safety signs targeting tourists. Lakey cited COVID-19 quarantine as a possible factor for drowning and near-drowning incidents among residents. Public pools had suspended swimming lessons.
“People were not taking preventable measures,” Lakey said. “This is something we have to fix.”
Osceola Sheriff’s Office 911 Supervisor Ubaldo “Ubby” Blanco, EMD, noted an increase in child drownings over the past year, although he is hesitant to correlate the increase to any specific factor. “Whenever a child drowns, I do my best to move past and not dwell on it that much.”
There is one call involving children, however, that does not go away. He does not dwell on the call from two years ago, but unlike most other calls Blanco has taken during his 11 years in emergency dispatch, he was unable to “take a deep breath, move onto the next one, and try to push it out of my memory,” he said.
Blanco remembers specifically hearing frantic callers telling him that they found two children submerged in a pool. “This was not a house of just a small family and the children,” he said. “This was a house with over 12 people in it.” The scene was pandemonium: Multiple people in hysterics, the two children lifted from the pool, and the challenge of having bystanders position the children for CPR.
“To be blunt, I put on a stern voice and said, ‘These children need us right now.’” Blanco focused on the children and the situation’s urgency, and repeatedly reassured the people at the pool, “We can help them.” He directed a male and female in giving CPR, and they had a rhythm going for a good two to three minutes with a pulse returning to one of the children. Reality set in when the mother arrived on scene. She was screaming—understandably so, he said—and he lost their attention. “I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me again.”
Supervisor Yasmen Barnett, EMD, was on the same shift and had taken a call from another caller on the scene who described tension at the pool that was interfering in attempts to provide CPR. Barnett vividly recalls hearing Blanco giving CPR instructions on speakerphone and pleading with the family to continue their efforts to save the children. “The family could not come together,” she said.
After the call, Blanco went outside and cried. He was later told the children did not survive, despite his efforts and those of paramedics and hospital staff. He hugged his daughter extra tight that night and told her how much he loved her. “No parent should ever have to bury their child,” Blanco said.
Lakey advocates prevention. Drowning is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Every year, more than 3,960 people in the United States die from drowning (an average of 11 each day), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1 Drowning is the fifth most common cause of accidental death in the country. A person can drown in less than 60 seconds, and it has been reported that it only takes 20 seconds for a child to drown and roughly 40 seconds for an adult.2
Based on her research, Lakey proposes police agency categorization of “tourist areas,” and an ordinance focusing on residential areas used for commercial purposes. She encourages increased mental health resources for first responders. It’s a matter of raising awareness and for Lakey, that means research.
“Change happens through research,” she said. “Numbers get people thinking. Reality is not based on assumption.”
Blanco said that if there is anything to be learned from the tragedy, it is the fickle nature of drowning. It can happen anytime, to anyone, and without provocation. “All it takes is one minute for the child to slip away, curiosity takes control, and they fall into the pool. I’ve had drownings from large, crowded hotel pools to just a single family ready to celebrate a birthday and one parent thought the other was watching.”
As a supervisor, Blanco said he concentrates on pulling his team together through the good calls and the tragedies. “We spend so many hours with each other, we may as well enjoy the time we have together and build our second family.”
Barnett said she was fortunate that she and Blanco worked together during the drowning call that stays fresh in his memory. “I could relate to him with what we had just gone through.”
1 “Drowning Prevention.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022; March 10. https://www.cdc.gov/drowning/facts/index.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fhomeandrecreationalsafety%2Fwater-safety%2Fwaterinjuries-factsheet.html (accessed July 18, 2022).
2 Watkins TW. “8 Truths About Drowning and ‘Dry Drowning’ Revealed.” 2019; July 9. https://www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/en/HealthU/2019/07/09/8-truths-about-drowning-and-dry-drowning-revealed#.YtX2RnbMI2w (accessed July 18, 2022).
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