NJ Health Officials Work to Prevent Drowning-Related Deaths

Beth Fitzgerald | June 14, 2012 | Health Care
With the start of summer, comes reminder of the dangers of the season -- and swim lessons for children in urban areas

Four children have drowned and another three nearly drowned in New Jersey waters since Memorial Day, a grim start to the summer season, according to state officials who are working to prevent drowning-related deaths.

On Wednesday, they were teaching water safety at the Raritan Bay YMCA in Perth Amboy, where fourth graders got a lesson on ways to keep safe while swimming.

But first they have to learn.

There were 120 Perth Amboy fourth graders at the YMCA for the summer safety program, and when they put on swimsuits and got into the pool, less than half could pass the swim test, said Raritan Bay YMCA President Stephen C. Jobin.

“I don’t think it’s unusual in an urban community that so many kids can’t swim.” Jobin said. “It’s frightening but it’s not unusual.”

The YMCA is just four years old, built to replace one destroyed by fire in 1997. The pool opened three years ago, so for a decade Perth Amboy had no YMCA pool. Jobin said the result was a decline in swimming skills that he is determined to change, and he hopes that in a generation, most Perth Amboy residents will be swimmers. The YMCA plans to offer free swimming lessons to second graders. “In eight years, everyone will know how to swim,” Jobin said.

State Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd said knowing how to swim sometimes isn’t enough, especially in the ocean, where tired swimmers get into trouble. “Even if you know how to swim you can easily get out of the range of safety in the ocean,” she said. “All of a sudden you are out farther and you can’t get back in.”

Parents, too, need to be aware of summer’s dangers. They need to be vigilant, especially when children are near the water, said Allison Blake, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families. “They need supervision at all times.”

And children should never be left alone in a car. “This is another situation where we lose children every summer” because they are left in the car with the windows rolled up, Blake said. “The temperature can rise in a hot car in a matter of seconds and it is really lethal exposure for a child.”