East Lake Fire Chief Tom Jamison has been in the fire and rescue service for 22 years. The details of most of the calls he's been on have faded. But not the drownings or near-drownings of children. Jamison, 55, says he remembers every detail of those.
"I can remember what the kids' faces looked like, where it happened," he said. "The details get burned into your memory."
His first was while he was still in paramedic training, around 1991. The crew arrived to find a 2-year-old girl who had been pulled from the water and was clinically dead, he said. The crew worked feverishly, desperate to bring her back. She was revived, Jamison said, and recovered without the brain damage that sometimes is the lasting effect of nearly drowning.
The horrifying annual tally of child drownings and near-drownings has begun in the bay area, as it does every year when the weather gets warm. Florida leads the nation in drowning deaths of children under 5 and has lost an average of 74 children each year of the last decade to drowning. Three-quarters die in backyard pools.
Last month East Lake Fire Rescue was dispatched to a drowning call in the Aylesford neighborhood of the Lansbrook development off East Lake Road. A mother had found her 2-year-old daughter floating in their pool.
Recently moved to Florida from up north, the family may not have known the dangerous lure a pool can be to young children, Jamison said, and hadn't yet installed a pool safety fence.
The family's 4-year-old boy managed to open a door to the pool area and his 2-year-old sister followed him out, Jamison said. Their mother glanced out a window and saw the 4-year-old standing — alone — on the pool deck.
The little girl was saved because her family knew CPR and revived her, and East Lake paramedics were nearby to take over her care. The outcome isn't always so good, Jamison said. He recalled cases where paramedics were met at the curb by parents desperately doing CPR on a child for whom there was no hope. In other cases, a child is revived, but if the brain went without oxygen for longer than four to six minutes, there likely will be brain damage and the child may require life-long care.
When a child drowns, people talk about the tragic loss of the child's life, about the grief of the stricken family, but they don't talk about the horror of those calls for first responders, who often are parents too.
"Anybody in my line of work will say the same thing," Jamison said. "If we never had to do another one of those the rest of our lives …"
Perhaps that's why much of his department turned out on a recent Saturday and visited all 137 homes in the Aylesford subdivision, talking to homeowners about pool safety and handing out packets of water safety information. They were joined by the Florida Suncoast SAFE KIDS Coalition and the YMCA. Jamison said the fire department will visit homes anytime to advise homeowners about how to improve safety around their pools.
So much can be done to prevent these tragedies, most at little cost: door alarms, pool motion sensors, survival swimming classes, pool fences with locking gates, CPR classes (call East Lake Fire Rescue at (727) 784-8668 for a class schedule).
And constant vigilance when a child is near water, because all it takes for a child to drown is one moment of inattention.
"And it's a silent event," Jamison said. "The kids don't yell and splash around. They just slip quietly under the water."