As a result of ongoing concerns regarding the underreporting of drownings in metropolitan areas, safety groups across the country are taking action.
“Many deaths caused by complications from drowning aren’t reported as drowning deaths,” said Jeremy Smith, president of the Dallas/Fort Worth Chapter of the Independent Pool & Spa Service Association.
Instead, such deaths are sometimes attributed primarily to respiratory failure or other complications because they may occur in a hospital days after the drowning incident. Some water safety advocates say as much as 10 percent of a state’s drowning-related deaths may go unreported in per-capita drowning statistics.
Smith learned about the Dallas metroplex’s underreporting problem through Kristen Beckworth, the injury prevention program coordinator at the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. Beckworth has been reaching out to other hospitals in the area in an effort to encourage them to share data on all water-related deaths.
The ultimate goal is to build a more accurate database of drowning incidents. Beckworth hopes it will enable health authorities and water safety groups to take precise action where it’s needed most. But as she acknowledges, drowning-related deaths are underreported in cities nationwide and around the world.
For that reason, organizations in several states have launched programs to fill unique communication gaps in their communities’ water safety infrastructures.
In California’s Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the National Drowning Prevention Alliance worked with local public health departments to develop a Submersion Incident Report Form, which is used by first responders such as fire departments.
“We noticed that our [drowning] statistics were different from the California Department of Health’s,” explained Kimberly Patrick, a founding board member of NDPA. “It’s a matter of how [authorities] code each incident, and the SIRF form was the only way we could figure out to get consistent numbers.”
Lynette Round, community relations and education supervisor at the Orange County Fire Authority, has spent the past few years pushing for firefighters in her area to properly use the electronic system to log all reports.
“A lot of times, they don’t fill out the form completely because they’re in emergency response mode,” Round said. “So we have to go back and fill in the pieces. But [often] that data’s lost.” Environmental data is critical, she said, because it helps groups such as NDPA develop targeted outreach programs that address the safety issues faced by specific groups and neighborhoods.
In South Florida, safety supporters have been working to address another sort of reporting issue. Due to high call volumes at Broward County’s five 911 centers, local operators are trained to log incidents under one of nearly 200 pre-established codes — and drownings may be logged as other problems.
“We don’t know how on-target our numbers are because there are about 100 times as many respiratory problems as drownings called in,” said Kimberly Burgess, executive director of NDPA. “We can’t tell how many of those were drowning, or how many were choking, for instance.”
Thus, Burgess and other NDPA members have been working with local authorities to pare down the codes to a more manageable number. Still, safety advocates emphasize that the Florida Health Department reports an accurate number of overall drowning deaths. The challenge, they say, is to accurately correlate that data with 911 call reports.
Meanwhile, some areas of Arizona already have developed robust toolkits for tracking drownings and near-drownings. In Maricopa County, an independently maintained Website called Children Safety Zone tracks drowning reports from the media, as well as summaries from fire departments. The county Health Services Department also collects drowning data.
“Those two systems together give Maricopa County a lot of information,” said Tiffaney Isaacson, water safety coordinator at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Using those resources, Isaacson’s team can keep close tabs on local drowning incidents, and assemble accurate reports on which safety organizations can act.
“We’re trying to get more information so that we can go out and educate people,” Round said. “If we can get everybody talking the same language, reporting the same thing, that would be fantastic.”