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Firefighter helps make pool safety a priority

A new program will teach homeowners how to secure their pools. The trainer's own niece nearly drowned.

By the time Kathy Brown found her little girl in the pool, 14-month-old Faith had already turned blue.

Racing from her kitchen through the back porch and into the pool enclosure, Brown dove under the water in a panic. She surfaced near the deep end, where the child's body floated, motionless and heavy in waterlogged clothes.

What happened next, Brown can't say for sure.

At 5 feet, 2 inches tall, she knows she couldn't have touched bottom. But she did manage to get Faith out of the water, then haul herself over the edge before screaming for her husband, David.

"She was so heavy that I just kind of rolled her up the side," Brown, 33, remembered. "It happened so fast it felt like somebody pulled me out of the pool."

On the tape of the family's 911 call to the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District, Brown's voice rings shrill and desperate in the background as a dispatcher walks her husband through the steps of infant resuscitation.

"Oh, God. Come on, honey," she cried, then screamed: "Get the ambulance."

This is the part Bill Eagle tells firefighters to listen to carefully during his class on drowning prevention.

As part of a comprehensive program the fire rescue district is launching this month, Eagle's class aims to train firefighters to help homeowners make their pools safer.

He plays the tape for a couple of reasons.

First, firefighters rarely get to hear what happens at a scene before they arrive. The panic in Brown's voice is shocking, even to emergency workers who have grown used to hysterical victims and their families, Eagle said.

But he might not be totally objective on this point.

The frightened mother on the tape is Eagle's sister, and Faith is his niece.

He was one of the firefighters who responded to the call for help last month, when the girl was discovered in the pool. When Eagle arrived in the fire engine, the family had already revived Faith, with instructions from the dispatcher to keep her crying until rescuers reached the house.

The crew rushed the child to Oak Hill Hospital, and Faith was later transferred to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, where she spent the night.

More than a month after the near-tragedy, the child is doing fine.

That is Eagle's second reason for using his family's experience as an example in his class: It has a happy ending.

And that's rare, he said. In Florida, 70 to 80 children between ages 1 and 4 drown every year, and the number jumps to 1,500 nationally, Eagle said. Drowning is the state's leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4.

"If we can save one child . . ." Eagle said, his voice trailing off. "I know for a fact there's going to be continued drownings."

Eagle, 35, started working on the prevention program a year ago as part of promotion requirements to become a lieutenant. The test required him to put together a sample class, but after his niece's accident, he pushed to implement the program districtwide.

He has developed a checklist on pool safety that will be available on the district's Web site _ _ and firefighters will make free home visits at the request of pool owners who would like help securing their property.

"It's an issue that we realize we can help with," said Assistant Chief J.J. Morrison. "By going out and helping show people how they can make their homes a little safer, it's a win-win situation."

A goal of the program is also to raise awareness.

The Browns, for instance, thought they were safe. Between their home and the pool, there were two doors, one sliding and one screened. On the day Faith fell in the water, the sliding door was open, and the family believes she must have run through it, then crawled out the doggy door, which measured just 9 by 11 inches.

"If you feel safe, you really need to check one more time," Mrs. Brown said.

After their experience, the Browns have made changes in their lifestyle and in their home.

Mrs. Brown, a full-time mother, said she no longer lets her older daughters watch Faith by themselves.

"As adults, we have a habit of having the older kids watching (the younger ones)," she said. "It takes a split second for this to happen."

Meanwhile, the couple have outfitted their house with a series of security measures to make the pool safer.

They blocked the doggy door and keep the screened door locked at all times. They also went to a home improvement store and bought an alarm for the screen door for $7. For added protection, they put a second lock on the door and mounted it high, out of Faith's reach.

And when they get their income-tax refund, the Browns are thinking about buying a floating alarm for the pool that will sound when anything more than 5 pounds enters the water.

If it were up to Mrs. Brown, the pool would be gone, but she has tried to be understanding because the rest of her family still likes to swim.

"My husband doesn't want it to be like Fort Knox," she said. "I would like to have tennis courts."

If you go

For information about the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District's swimming pool safety program or to request a home inspection, call the district's information line at 688-5030.