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Real Lifesavers

First in a series

Jay and Elizabeth Witherell know too well the pain parents feel at the loss of a child. In 1986 their 2-year-old son, Daniel, drowned in their backyard pool.

Sadly, the Witherells learned too late what they could have done to prevent a tragic accident at their pool, said Jay Witherell, a firefighter paramedic with the city of Largo. But he decided to turn his devastating experience into positive advice for others. He teaches CPR and speaks around the bay area about how others might avoid a similar tragedy at their own home.

"It took about a year and a half, and we finally said, "We don't want our son's death to be in vain,'

" Witherell said. "If someone else's child can be protected from this experience, we want to share it."

What happened to the Witherells happens to hundreds of parents each year, and it can happen at any time. With the kids on vacation and steamy weather here, it may be a good time to evaluate whether you have adequate safety measures at your pool, especially if you have small children.

Talk to any pool safety expert and you hear the same warning. Experts say it can't be stressed enough: There's no substitute for supervision.

"You can't put a pool alarm out there and say, "Now no children are going to get in trouble in my pool,' " said Stu Lang, a pool consultant in Tampa. "There isn't any gadget or machine that's going to protect you 100 percent."

Drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for toddlers, according to the state HRS Office of Health Promotion and Wellness. In 1993, the latest year for which statistics are available, there were 67 drowning deaths in Florida of children 4 and under.

That doesn't count the number of children who end up with permanent damage from near-drownings each year.

Most of the drownings occurred when an unsupervised child entered the water, according to HRS. But HRS also cites a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Report that showed 76 percent of all childhood drownings between 1980 and 1988 involved a parent or sibling who was supervising the child but was distracted by the phone, chores or socializing.

So keen eyes and constant supervision by a responsible adult are keys to a safer swimming experience.

The way a homeowner controls access to the pool is also crucial, said Lang, the pool consultant. Make sure fencing around the pool is always secure, and doors to the pool area are secured by locks that are out of reach of small hands.

"It's uncommon or unusual for me to go and find a gate locked or a screen door latched and locked" during consultation visits to homes, Lang says. "You have to have a lot of discipline."

Combined with proper precautions, there are some safety products on the market that can help to protect a wandering child from becoming a drowning statistic.

"You're going to have momentary lapses (in supervision) no matter how good a parent you are. You don't bring your kids with you every time you go to the bathroom," said Witherell, who now has four boys ages 2-8. "These things don't replace supervision, but the more levels of protection, the more barriers you have, the more time you have."

Pool fencing with a transparent mesh screen has become popular in recent years. There are several brands available. Posts lock into the patio deck and a safety latch allows entry through one area of the fence. The fence is also completely removable. Fencing for an average size pool costs about $500-$700.

"We say the fence and adult supervision is the safest," said John Bishop, owner of Pinch-a-Penny Pool and Patio Store in New Port Richey. Brandon Pool Sitters sells a similar type of fence, or check your local Yellow Pages for other pool supply stores.

Bishop says his most popular items are pool alarms because of their relatively low cost. Alarms can cost from $29.95 up to a few thousand dollars, but the ones Bishop sells cost no more than a few hundred dollars.

Sonar alarms can be installed at the time a pool is built. Other types of alarms either hang from the side of the pool or float on top of the water. The alarm sounds if it senses an intrusion into the water.

However, some experts say alarms are not the most reliable safety device because they rely on batteries and are reactive _ meaning a child has to disturb the water to activate the alarm.

"If it's a choice between a barrier and an alarm, get a barrier," Witherell said.

A product that reached the Tampa Bay area a little over a year ago is the Aqua-Net. Made of a strong polyurethane braid, the net is stretched over the pool and will support a small child and prevent him or her from going underwater.

The net was developed in Zimbabwe, Africa, 22 years ago and the company says there have been no reported drownings with its use. About 100 have been installed so far in the bay area.

"Having that net there is a great sense of comfort," said Witherell, who recently purchased one in addition to the chain-link fence he already had installed.

Comparing the net with fencing, Dale Howes of Aqua-Net says, "The fencing is a vertical barrier that is possibly scalable by the child, or the child can pass through an open gate. There is that element of doubt and insecurity. With the net, once in place the child can't get under it or through it, and he's not in any danger."

Some pool experts say nets are cumbersome to remove and replace after each swim. But Aqua-Net says theirs can be removed in three or four minutes and replaced in four or five minutes. Howes, who has small children at home, says he can do it in even less time.

Aqua-Net costs about $575-$600 for an average size pool. For more information call 545-8788 in St. Petersburg.

Aside from keeping children out of harm's way, parents have a responsibility to teach their youngsters about the pool, said Mary Beth Sultenfuss, who teaches water safety and swimming classes at the Apollo Beach Racquet and Fitness Club in south Hillsborough County.

"They need to know what it's like without flotation devices," Sultenfuss said.

It's never too soon to get a child acclimated to the water, she added.

"The earlier the better. It starts with the first bath, getting them used to having water on top of their head."

Water safety goes beyond drowning prevention. Be prepared for injuries by having a first aid kit near the pool. Many injuries occur from diving boards, Lang said.

"One should never have a board on their pool if it doesn't meet safety requirements," Lang said.

The National Spa and Pool Institute publishes recommended board lengths and heights over the pool according its size and depth.

Kids at the pool translate into lots of noise and activity. Keep the area from becoming a racetrack by placing planters or other barriers at intervals around the pool, suggests Lang.

Another important safety tip: Make sure your pool deck is finished with a slip-resistant surface.

"The finish on your deck is pretty important," Lang said.

Some acrylic-based sealers can be very slippery when wet. Ask at your local home store for something with a skid-resistant surface.

"There are some grand things out there," Lang said. "Interlocking bricks, brick pavers, artificial pavers made from concrete _ textures that are safe and kids won't slip and slide and fall on them."

Finally, have someone in the house who can do CPR. It could save a life if all other safety measures fail.

Pool safety tips

+ Never leave a child alone or out of eye-contact supervision in or near the pool or spa _ not even for a second.

+ Access to the pool or spa should be limited by locked doors and gates whenever swimming or soaking cannot be supervised.

+ Keep toys, particularly tricycles or wheel toys, away from the pool or spa. A child playing with these things could accidentally fall into the water.

+ Do not allow anyone of any age to swim without a "spotter" nearby. Examples of good safety behavior by adults are important for young children.

_ WENDY LEMUS

Source: National Spa and Pool Institute. For a free copy of their pamphlets "Children Aren't Waterproof" or "Water Safety," call (800) 323-3996.

Swimming pool safety measures

Now that hot weather is here, it's a good time to evaluate whether you have adequate safety measures at your pool. Here's a list of some precautions you can take to protect against a tragedy.

1 Fence with a lock: Control access to the pool with some type of fence secured with a lock that is out of reach of small children.

2 First aid kit: In case of injuries, be prepared.

3 Cellular phone: To call for help if needed.

4 Adult supervision: There's no substitute. There are no gadgets that are going to protect you 100 percent.

5 Pool alarm: Most popular due to low cost. The alarm floats around the pool. When the water is disturbed, the device sends a signal and an alarm sounds, alerting you that something has entered the pool.

6 Planters: Keep children from running around by placing planters or other barriers at intervals around the pool.

7 Pool fencing: Posts lock into the patio deck and a removable mesh screen is attached around the pool. A safety latch allows entry through one area only.

8 Slip-resistant surface: Select pool surfaces that kids won't slip and fall on such as interlocking bricks, brick pavers or artificial pavers made from concrete.

9 Pool safety net: Made of a strong polyurethane braid, the net is stretched over the pool like a cover. It will support a child and prevent him or her from going underwater.

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