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July 22, 2014, 7:24 am

Program seeks to prevent childhood drownings

While infant and youth drowning may not register high on the radar of many urbanized Philadelphians, the city is rife with enough rivers, lakes, ponds and unsecured public and private pools to raise the concern of many parents.

And with statistics showing that Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the country in terms of infant and juvenile drowning deaths, programs such as Infant Swimming Resource’s “Self-Rescue” program become even more relevant. The program, founded by Harvey Barnett, Ph.D., in 1966, teaches infants as young as six months old how to swim, turn in water and float face-up so they can breathe and yell for help.

“The mission of ISR is ‘Not one more child drowns,’ so we take a different approach to pediatric prevention, including [instruction on] supervision, and equipping children with ISR rescue skills so a child has a chance to save themselves in that situation,” said ISR Director of Expansion Ashleigh Bullivant. “We do that by working in the community, and each ISR instructor works within their individual community to provide education to parents and families.”

The problem is real. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger, and for every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency care for nonfatal submersion injuries. Near-drownings can result in severe, irrecoverable brain damage.

“Children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates. In 2009, among children 1 to 4 years old who died from an unintentional injury, more than 30 percent died from drowning,” read the CDC’s findings. “Among children ages 1 to 4, most drownings occur in home swimming pools. Drowning is responsible for more deaths among children 1-4 than any other cause except congenital anomalies (birth defects). Among those 1-14, fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death behind motor vehicle crashes.”

The CDC’s findings also show that drowning deaths among minorities is skyrocketing, noting that between 2005 and 2009, the unintentional drowning rates among African-Americans were significantly higher than those of whites, with the largest disparity shown in the ages 5-14 category.

“Factors such as access to swimming pools, the desire or lack of desire to learn how to swim, and choosing water-related recreational activities may contribute to the racial differences in drowning rates,” the CDC reported. “Available rates are based on population, not on participation. If rates could be determined by actual participation in water-related activities, the disparity in minorities’ drowning rates compared to whites would be much greater.”

Philadelphia-based Certified ISR Instructor and Jefferson University’s Director of Learning Resources Dr. Martha Ankeny said ISR’s “Self-Rescue” program offers a vital and unique approach that can save lives.

“For me, the fact that according to the CDC, drownings are the number one cause of unintentional deaths in children under four and it is number two in children under the age of 14, that’s a serious problem,” said Ankeny, a certified lifeguard with more than 40 years of experience in the water. “We think we can always watch children, but we can’t. Supervision is critical, fencing is critical; but when those things fail, a child who is trained has a better chance at surviving.”

Ankeny, whose specialty is dealing with infants and people who are afraid of venturing into swimming waters, said she has been in talks with getting ISR’s program infused into the programming provided by various health organizations, but other outlets have already adopted all or part of ISR’s self-rescue techniques, including The Harrah’s Regional Trauma Center at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in New Jersey, with officials there were so enthralled by the program that they have partnered with ISR.

“Part of our comprehensive ISR self-rescue program involves educating parents about additional, specific ways they can protect their children from water dangers,” said Harrah’s Regional Trauma Center Program Director Monica Titus. “Self-rescue techniques are just a part — but a very important part — of the big picture. You might say they’re an extra layer of protection.”

The Trevor “Birdie” Davis Water Safety Foundation is also very active in the cause, as it has sponsored the classes for dozens of children, while also covering the tuition for seven ISR instructors. Becoming an ISR instructor can cost upwards of $20,000 and require at least six weeks of intense aquatic and classroom training.

According to the website Water Safety Awareness, there are five keys to drowning prevention: supervision, fencing, alarms, self-survival and CPR — all components that Ankeny endorses.

“Supervision is the first critical factor of drowning prevention. Correct, adequate fencing is the second critical factor. I can’t tell you how discouraging it is when I visit a home and they’ve got a pool in the backyard, and the yard is fenced but the pool is not,” Ankeny said. “The yard being fenced is not enough; the pool itself needs four-sided, vertical bars.”

There are certified ISR instructors at the Philadelphia Sports Clubs in Chalfont, Pa., and Radnor, Pa., and also one in north Jersey; there are also three instructors at the Hockessin Athletic Club in Hockessin, Del. While they all service Philadelphia, Ankeny is the only one based in Philadelphia, and is looking to establish relationships with area institutions, especially those in minority and at-risk communities, to expand ISR’s footprint here, and toward that end, has reached out to area YMCA’s and other organizations about using their pools. Each individual ISR instructor can set their own fee scale for individual families, and that will work to Ankeny’s advantage as there are numerous programs and subsidies available for interested families.

“I’m still looking for a pool, but to date, I haven’t been able to find a location to train in,” Ankeny said, noting that although the response has been very positive, many locations have issues with liability coverage and are fearful that any participating infant may have an accident in the pool. Ankeny – like all ISR instructors – has full liability coverage. “The protocols by ISR really diminish the chances of a child having any kind of accident in the water, because of the way their parents have their eating and feeding schedules before their lessons. And also, if they aren’t toilet-trained, [infants] wear a special diaper designed by ISR, that, if an accident was to occur, the chances of anything getting out are slim.

“So the chances of an infant having an accident, although not 100 percent eliminated, is dramatically reduced,” Ankeny continued. “It’s about training children to survive.”


Contact staff writer Damon C. Williams at (215) 893-5745 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .