Life-saving moments

Posted: Monday, June 11, 2001

Alaska leads the nation in water-related fatalities, according to data provided by the statewide Kids Don't Float campaign.

In 1994, Alaska had 10 times the national average of fatalities related to water, and in the 10 years between 1988 and 1998, 266 Alaskans died in boating accidents.

Although fatalities relating to water have declined nationwide in recent years, drowning is still the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death to children 14 and under, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign. One thousand children drown every year, and 4,000 more are hospitalized for near-drownings, it says.

However, Kenai Peninsula parents and organizations are trying to do something about these statistics.

Instructors from both the Skyview and Soldotna High School's summer swimming programs report strong enrollment numbers for this year's sessions.

"I have 60 kids already signed up for my first two-week session," said Cindy Aldridge, SoHi's pool manager.



There are generally anywhere from 75 to 100 slots available for each of her six sessions, but they are filling up fast.

"I had one mother come in and sign up her kids for the whole summer," Aldridge said.

While not all parents are that enthusiastic about their children's swimming education, many sign up for more than one session per summer.

"Fifty percent come back for more than one session in a summer, and around 25 percent come for three summers," said Michelle McGlasson, the Skyview pool manager.

"Just because you take one swimming class that doesn't mean anything. No matter if you are a great swimmer. When you are out in Alaska waters, the water is so cold, we have to deal with the hypothermia factor. You won't be able to last too long," said Jane Feldman, central peninsula coordinator of the Kenai Peninsula Safe Kids Coalition, a children's injury prevention group.

She recommends that all children take more than one session of swimming classes as well as practice other precautions such as wearing a personal flotation device.

Alaska law requires that all children 13 years and younger wear a life jacket in an open boat or when above deck on a boat with a cabin. Anyone over 13 needs to have a life jacket accessible.

"Whether it is the law or not, everybody should have a PFD on," Feldman said.

However, she also points out that children need to be comfortable and not fearful of the water.

Children who have had swimming lessons don't go into a panic mode as quickly, and therefore they have better chances for survival, Feldman said.

"It is very important for children in Alaska to take swimming lessons because there is so much water all around," McGlasson said.

McGlasson believes that parents bring their children in for lessons because so many families spend so much time on the water for recreation and employment.

"They generally bring them in because their family fishes either commercially or they are guides or because they live close to the water. They want their kids to be aware of water safety," McGlasson said.

"Some didn't learn how to swim as children and they want their kids to learn how."

Aldridge agrees that because Alaska has a higher percentage of water compared to other states it is important to have children learn to swim.

The proximity and abundance of water on the peninsula led Bob Painter, a member of the Homer Fire Department, to begin the Kids Don't Float program. The program makes life jackets available for youngsters at harbors and recreational areas around the state.

"Children are all of our business," Feldman said. "We need to be their advocates. No one intends for these things to happen, but we are in an age now that putting on a piece of gear still allows us to go out and have fun."

Feldman visits schools throughout the year and teaches students about safety precautions.

"I tell them ways that they as children can learn to think things through and make good decisions," Feldman said.

Swimming lessons provide similar lessons and ideas.

Both the programs at Skyview and SoHi have lessons for children as young as 3 years old. These classes are smaller, usually five children per instructor, and focus on basic skills.

Children 5 and older are placed into other levels depending on their comfort level in the water.

"We generally ask a parent and child what they feel they are comfortable with," McGlasson said.

At Skyview, classes for children 5 and older, range from level one, which focuses on familiarity in the water, to level five, which teaches more advanced skills such as swimming the length of the pool, diving and treading water.

The classes at SoHi are structured similarly. They have four levels after the preschool age group. Children in level one range from 5 to 10 years old. Placement in each level is based upon swimming ability; if students are capable, they are free to pass out of one level and into a higher one.

Although many peninsula parents have their children taking lessons at a young age, there are still some students who enter high school without basic swimming knowledge.

Area high schools require swimming education as part of the basic physical education class all freshman are expected to pass.

"Usually we have five or six every semester that don't know how to swim or are afraid of the water," Aldridge said. "Some just don't feel they need it."

The majority of younger children, however, are comfortable in the water, said McGlasson.

"There usually isn't an in between. They are either comfortable or afraid."

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