Jun 18, 2014
10:08 AMHealth & Science
Son's Drowning Leads Leonard Family to Advocate for Water Safety Education
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The Leonards decided they would reach kids more effectively with awareness efforts if they used a fun cartoon character as a spokesperson. They came up with Stewie the Duck, and published two books on water safety: Stewie the Duck Learns to Swim and Swimming Lessons with Stewie the Duck. In the books, Stewie must take swimming lessons and learn water safety procedures before he can swim with the big ducks.
Stew Leonard Jr. explains that the books emphasize three simple concepts: learn to swim; wear a life vest; and a grownup must watch you when you’re swimming.
“Supervision or at least observation of everybody in the water especially the kids is critical,” says Mike Fields, executive director of National Water Safety Congress, an organization that promotes water safety throughout the U.S. “Lifeguards give people a false sense of security when in actuality the lifeguard is just another layer of protection. Most people drown within a few feet of safety and it happens quickly.”
While swimming in a family or group setting, Fields says somebody should be designated as a “water watcher.” This person is “designated for a specific amount of time, maybe 15 minutes.”
When around water, it also helps to remember that a real-life drowning is different than in the movies.
“Drowning is not what most people think it will look like,” Fields says. “It is very silent and quick. While you might expect someone in trouble to yell and wave and try to get somebody’s attention, in reality the person is using every bit of their strength and mind power to survive. Unless you are watching closely you may never notice they are in trouble until they go under.”
It’s also important to watch small children anytime they’re around a pool, not just when they’re swimming in it. According to the CDC, children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates, and among kids in this age group most drowning deaths occur in home swimming pools.
The Leonards have four daughters, three born after Stewie’s death, and as they raised their children they had to make a conscious choice about what the family’s relationship with the water would be.
“We live on the water, and I’ve grown up and lived on the water all my life—we have a pool in the backyard,” Stew Leonard Jr. says. “We had to decide, ‘Do we want to move inland?’ which we considered, with no pool, no water, or do we want to face reality. We decided “Let’s practice what we preach here.’”
The Leonards’ daughters were coached in water safety and started taking swim lessons as early as possible. The family continues to enjoy summer fun in the water, but does so safely.
Tom Laudano, owner of Aquatic Pool & Spa Service, says that there are a variety of modern safety devices available for pool owners.
“My recommendation is for people to make sure the obvious safety precautions are in place,” he says, “such as the proper code fence around their pool, self-closing gates that don’t push inward to the pool but which have to pull them open to get in the pool area, and gates that close behind you.”
Many people use the back of their house as the fourth wall of the pool’s fence.
Laudano cautions that “any door that has access to the pool area should be on a battery-operated door alarm, so that in the event a child should open up a door, the alarm will start screeching.”