URBANA – Pamela Pendleton has been swimming since she was a tyke and teaching kids to swim for more than a decade.
But even with all that experience in the water, there's one thing she'd never do: swim alone.
That's dangerous for anybody – young or old, experienced or beginner – said Pendleton, deck staff leader at Indian Acres Swim Club in Champaign.
"At any moment, someone can slip under the water," she said.
With school out for the summer and June warming up enough for daily swimming, experts say, there's no better time to make water safety a priority for the whole family.
There are thousands of drownings in the U.S. every year, and more than one in four of them involve kids age 14 and under, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Small children are especially vulnerable to drowning and water injuries. About two-thirds of all pool and hot tub-related deaths and injuries happen to toddlers ages 1-2, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported last month.
Dena Schumacher, community education officer with the Champaign Fire Department, said that even in landlocked Champaign-Urbana there's a drowning every year.
"You'd be surprised how many water bodies we have in Champaign," she said. "It's like over 50. Look around all the subdivisions."
Dr. Uretz Oliphant, a Carle Foundation Hospital trauma surgeon, has dealt with numerous drowning tragedies on the job in the Carle emergency room.
But he became passionate about drowning prevention a year ago when a family member drowned at his home, he said.
"It really doesn't hit you personally until it happens to a family member, and then it becomes personal," he said.
Oliphant said he can use all the skills he has to try to save a patient after a water accident, but the best thing families can do is take steps to prevent water tragedies in the first place.
"I see it after they happen, and in some cases, there's nothing I can do," he said.
Oliphant's message to parents is a heartfelt plea to be vigilant about protecting small children from accidents at private pools.
"You've got to make it so that young children can't get unmonitored access to pools," he said. "There has to be an adult around. That even extends to public pools, as well."
Staying safe around the water means knowing and avoiding all the risk factors. Some major ones cited by the CDC:
– Lack of barriers around or over water or lack of supervision: Most young children who drown in pools are out of sight less than five minutes and in the care of one or both parents at the time. Babies under a year old most often drown in bathtubs, buckets or toilets, and kids 1 to 4 most often drown in residential swimming pools.
– Failing to make the right decisions in recreational boating. Nine out 10 people who die in boating accident didn't wear life jackets.
– Drinking and boating, drinking and swimming: Alcohol use is involved in up to half of all adolescent and adult deaths involving water recreation.
Pendleton said kids coming to day camp at Indian Acres get a dose of pool safety training first, such as what to do in an emergency and always following the instructions of the lifeguard.
Preschoolers coming to Indian Acres splash around in a shallow wading pool where there's no risk of wandering into water too deep, and older kids wanting access to deeper waters at Indian Acres must prove they can swim across the pool and back with an instructor watching, she said.
Pendleton also strongly urges parents to always keep children in sight when they're near a pool or other water. And don't ever rely on "floaties" (which can deflate) to keep a child safe in the water, she said.
Traveling and staying at a hotel with a pool? Walk your child around the pool first and check out where the deepest spots are so your children know which end of the pool is safest for them, Pendleton advises.
Your child is a beginning swimmer who is afraid of the water? Try not to panic or show you're nervous if a child swallows water or gets a leg cramp. When children get a face full of water before they're ready, stay calm and offer praise, Pendleton advises.
"Say, 'Hey, that's great – you went under the water!'" she said.
A dozen tips for keeping safe in the water this summer
1. Never leave children alone or in the care of another child in the water.
2. Never leave standing water where small children can fall in. In addition to pools and lakes, water can pose a hazard in bathtubs, buckets and pails, ice chests with melted ice, toilets, hot tubs, irrigation ditches, wells, ponds and fountains.
3. Keep a fence at least 4 feet high around swimming pools, and make sure there aren't any footholds for a child to climb on. A power safety cover can enhance protection but shouldn't be substituted for a fence.
4. Use a rigid lockable cover on a hot tub, spa or whirlpool. Or fence them in as you would a pool.
5. Remove toys from all pools after swimming to prevent children from reaching for them.
6. Never allow riding toys or electrical appliances near the water.
7. Never rely on swimming aids and inflatable toys as a substitute for life vests.
8. Adults should keep a child under age 5 within arm's length at all times in the water.
9. Learn two things: How to swim and CPR.
10. Never mix drinking alcohol with swimming or boating.
11. Make it a rule to forbid diving in a pool that isn't deep enough.
12. Always check weather forecasts before swimming or boating.
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.