Trying to walk out to Charles Island at Silver Sands State Park in Milford this summer, George Swaby drowned after he and a friend were swept up in a fast current off a sandbar.
Beachgoers watched as a boater rescued his friend that Friday, July 21. The body of Swaby, 28, was not found for two days. Compounding the tragedy was that it happened in sight of the beach, although outside the swimming area.
“It was our goal to guard that beach from Thursday through Sunday,” said Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “They were not able to round up enough guards that day.”
Drowning is the sixth most frequent cause of unintentional death in the state— making it a public health problem, state officials say. More people drown than die in fires or other outdoor-related accidents. More drown than die in machinery accidents or gun accidents.
Between 2008 and 2016, an average of 29 people per year, or 1 per 100,000, drowned in natural bodies of water, swimming pools or bathtubs in Connecticut, according to Department of Public Health statistics. This is slightly below the national rate of 1.1 per 100,000. Year to year, the numbers fluctuate: 41 in 2013 vs. nine in 2015, for example. Of the 257 drowning deaths, most are children under 5 and men between 20 and 35. The next most vulnerable group is 75- to 84-year-olds, who drown at twice the average rate, DPH said.
Swimming is fun, but can be risky, and state laws and policies do little to minimize the risks. One safeguard – lifeguards – has been undercut by the shrinking state parks budget. Starting in 2010, park revenues began to be funneled to the state’s increasingly strapped general fund.
As the 2017 summer concludes and Connecticut still lacks a budget for the new fiscal year, some Democrats proposed a “state park passport” that would add as much as $14 million a year for state parks through a $10 surcharge on biannual car and truck registrations. It’s impossible to say whether that revenue stream could add back the lifeguard hours cut over the past years in a state that owes billions of dollars. “We have to see and understand how that’s structured,” Schain said.
Bills introduced in the legislature in 2009 and 2013 requiring school districts to offer swimming lessons died in committee. A 2015 bill that would have provided free swimming lessons to children through YMCAs also went nowhere.
DPH epidemiologist Susan Logan said drowning deaths can be prevented.
“This is absolutely something we have the capacity to work on,” Logan said. The DPH recommends that people wear life vests, not drink alcohol around water, know cardiopulmonary resuscitation and teach children to swim.
Connecticut isn’t alone in its struggles to balance cost and safety. Pennsylvania eliminated most of its public-swimming-area lifeguards 18 years ago and by this year was down to guarding only its Lake Erie beach. In California, where more than 50 people a year die in drowning accidents and hundreds are on disability from water injuries, Gov. Edmund G. Brown issued a letter urging “constant adult supervision” of children around water.
Because lifeguards’ training includes stopping risky behavior, common wisdom might be that states just need more lifeguards. But drowning expert Shawn DeRosa of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting of State College, Pa., said that a corresponding problem is that parents and friends don’t understand how to watch swimmers.
“Water accidents happen fast and silently. The only way to prevent them is to be watching all the time,” DeRosa said. Wearing lifejackets also prevents accidents, DeRosa said.
So does teaching children to swim, but many families can’t afford to pay for lessons. In 2015, at the urging of a group of YMCAs, state Rep. Henry Genga introduced a bill to offer free-swimming lessons to children. The bill died in the Joint Committee on Children.
“They told me it’s going to cost money, and we knew that,” Genga, of East Hartford, said. “You’re familiar with the state of Connecticut and its financial problems. There was a demonstrated need. But with all the priorities, because it was a new program, it didn’t have a chance.”
There’s some good policy news in Connecticut, however. The General Assembly passed a bill in June requiring that police officers be trained to recognize behavior in autistic children, such as wandering, that could lead to drowning. And in May, the state formed a task force on water safety, which has yet to hold a meeting.
The executive director of the Connecticut Alliance of YMCAs, John Cattelan, said his organization is “very concerned that there possibly are no lifeguards at state parks during certain hours. We had some initial conversations that didn’t go anywhere to work with the state to provide lifeguards. We feel [drownings are] preventable.”
Since 1998, 44 people have drowned at state parks, some of those deaths occurring at parks with lifeguards on duty. Thirteen people have drowned at Squantz Pond State Park, New Fairfield, for example, more than at any other state park, even though it has had lifeguards on patrol at least some of the time.
There’s no way to know how many more deaths at state parks would have been prevented if lifeguards had been patrolling, but a national report found that lifeguards save 100,000 lives a year across the country.
“It’s so important to have lifeguards,” said Karen Cohn, co-founder of the ZAC Foundation, a Fairfield-based nonprofit that promotes swimming safety. She and her husband Brian Cohn started the foundation in 2008 in memory of their 6-year-old son, Zachary, who died in a pool drain entrapment. The foundation advocates for domed drain covers and other safety measures, such as closing pools that lack drain covers.
“Lifeguards are trained to save lives,” Cohn said. “Statistics show that if someone is drowning and they are pulled out of the water and CPR is administered immediately, that saves lives.” But she added that vigilant parents and friends, and never swimming alone, can prevent accidents. Cohn will serve on the state task force.
Schain said that the state urges people to be aware and not to depend on lifeguards. DEEP has not been able to fill the jobs for the eight state swimming areas they want to staff four days a week. The department was unable to staff Burr Pond State Park in Torrington at all in 2017, even though someone drowned there last year. For now, it staffs four beach parks and three lakes.
In July, a help-wanted sign for lifeguards greeted motorists on Route 1 in Madison, outside the entrance to Hammonasset Beach State Park. Even at the state’s most popular park, at times, no one is watching.
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (c-hit.org).