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Mass. has seen a spike in drownings. Here’s how to stay safe around water this summer

"You never go in without something else that can help you, and make sure that you’re calling for help."

Cam Lemerise, 4, of Charlestown eases his way into the water to swim with his great-grandmother at the BCYF Clougherty Pool. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Water safety is important year-round, of course, but summer has arrived and New Englanders are hopping in the nearest body of water.

Though the weather finally being warm enough to jump in our still-freezing local waters is an oddly joyful time, May and June were marked with over two dozen tragic drownings, most recently on June 23 when a 60-year-old man drowned in a pool. Horrible incidents happen, but it’s important to know everything we can to prevent them.

Timeline information is from news reports of drownings in New England in May and June. Prepared using Knight Lab Timeline tool.

Personal pool safety

On June 19, 1-year-old Angelo Nicoloro drowned in a backyard, above-ground pool during a family gathering in Wrentham. According to police, the family reported a window of less than 10 minutes when they didn’t know where he was. Their experience is unfortunately the most common scenario of children drowning in backyard pools.

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Stephanie Shook, senior aquatics manager for the American Red Cross, told Southwest Florida’s WINK News that most young kids who died in home pools were not intended to be in the water, were last seen in the home, and had been out of sight for less than five minutes.

“Our politicians aren’t doing a great job of protecting our kids when it comes to pool safety. I know those are big words, but they are the people who put regulations or don’t.”

Jeff Baril, childproofing and pool fence expert

Nationwide, drowning is the second most common cause of death for children 1 to 14 behind unintentional death from vehicle crashes, according to the CDC. In 2015, drowning was the leading cause of unintentional injury death for children 0 to 14, according to the Massachusetts Injury Prevention and Control Program. Children under 1-year-old most often drown in buckets, toilets, wading pools, and bathtubs, while children 1-4 most often drown in backyard pools.

“Most child drownings involve a brief lapse in supervision — for example, taking one’s eyes off of a child to text or talk on a cell phone,” the state website reads. “Many people assume that if someone is drowning, they will be splashing or calling for help, or waving their arms. In reality, drowning is swift and silent. There is often no struggle or splashing, no cry for help. Many child drownings occur in the presence of other children or adults.”

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Jeff Baril, who founded Safe Beginnings Childproofing and now installs Protect-A-Child pool fences, travels the region having conversations with families about water safety. He said he doesn’t use the word “safe” in his business, only “safer,” because parent supervision and participation are key to any protective measure. For example, the fences Baril installs automatically close and latch, but have to be locked with a key.

“If you haven’t locked it with a key, any child with a chair who’s watched you open the latch before can do it,” he said. “So, we have lots of conversations with parents.”

Under the watchful eye of their grandmother, six year old twins Reese and Cohen Heraldo, 6, their older brother Kenny, 13, and their cousin Deron Bennett, 8, swim in their grandmother’s backyard pool. – Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Baril mainly installs fences around in-ground pools with concrete decks. Still, he sees a big problem with how all backyard pools, including above-ground pools, are not regulated for safety in Massachusetts. He especially cautioned against putting an above-ground pool right up to a deck without any fencing in between.

“There doesn’t seem to be enough awareness on the state or local level to require that people have some sort of fence or railing system that will keep anybody going from the deck to the pool,” he said. “Same thing with pools put in backyards.”

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While people in Massachusetts are typically required to put a fence around their backyard, the state does not legally obligate them to put a fence around a pool. This is not true for all states.

“In Florida…you’re not allowed to go from your house to your pool without something in between,” he said. “So, if you’re building a house with a swimming pool, and you’re 150 years old, they would still make you put a safety fence between walking out your door and getting to that swimming pool.”

Baril believes governments should do more to ensure pool safety with private swimming pools.

“Our politicians aren’t doing a great job of protecting our kids when it comes to pool safety,” he said. “I know those are big words, but they are the people who put regulations or don’t.”

Keeping kids, and yourself, safe

In two June incidents, adults who jumped in to rescue drowning children also drowned. Two men, a 19-year-old and a 39-year-old, drowned after entering the water to retrieve a ball. One 17-year-old tragically drowned in a pool at a graduation party.

Adult drownings look different. According to the state Injury Prevention and Control Program, alcohol is involved in 25-50% of adolescent and adult drowning deaths, which also occur most frequently in natural bodies of water.

However, two adults recently died trying to save children.

Children play in the water at Hampton Beach in Hampton, New Hampshire on August 5, 2020. – (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP)

Greater Boston Safety Training, which offers a host of water safety trainings, told Boston.com that local police departments and other groups have recently requested updated training in how to save people from drowning.

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“It’s so important to always bring something with you, some sort of floatation device you can reach or extend or utilize,” said Director of Training Andrea Macauda. “When people are going down, they’re in a panicked state, they’re going to grab onto anything with a superhuman strength, and it’s going to be that adult, and it’s very easy for someone to not be able to meet that strength and overcome it. You never go in without something else that can help you, and make sure that you’re calling for help.”

She pointed out that lifeguards, who are trained and have a flotation device capable of holding 200 pounds, do not enter the water without activating an emergency action plan by blowing that whistle.

Executive Director Chris Masiello said it’s important to start safety conversations and swim instruction at a young age. Greater Boston Safety Training offers classes for any group of five or more people, so anyone from families to organizations can sign up for classes in water safety, home pool safety, rip current safety, and more.

“We’re very invested in trying to help this region be safer and stronger,” Macauda said. “We want to be part of the solution.”

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