Elderly woman with child in pool
An increasing number of San Diego children have had to be rescued from private pools after nearly drowning, according to county health officials. Proper safety instruction is demonstrated in this publicity photo. José A. Álvarez/San Diego County Communications Office

With the summer months approaching, San Diego County officials are providing funding to expand community water safety training, especially in communities of color, where swimming education is often lacking, officials say.

Drowning is the number one cause of unintentional deaths for children ages 1-4, and the second leading cause of death for children under 14, according to information released earlier this month by San Diego County health officials. Drowning can be prevented through water safety education, swim instruction and learning how to provide CPR with rescue breathing. 

But swimming is a life skill that is not easily accessible to all area residents, officials caution. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 79% of children in households with incomes of less than $50,000 a year have little to no swimming ability. Their research also shows that 64% of African-American, 45% of Hispanic/Latino, and 40% of Caucasian children lack basic life saving water skills. 

Joel Shinofield, USA Swimming Foundation managing director of sport development, said there are numerous reasons for disparities in swimming proficiency.

"I think there's a whole host of reasons, you know, societal, historical, sociological, that all come into play," Shinofield said. "There are places where there has been a deep and rich diverse history of aquatics in this country.”

“And there are places where people who don't look like me don't have access, or haven't had access in the past,” said Shinofield, who is white.  “And so I think that stark difference is sort of where we start; when given an opportunity, when given access, (it) doesn't really matter what you look like, you can develop proficiency, love and excel in aquatic sports. ... When not given the opportunity, it becomes virtually impossible because something as simple as finding water, so you can learn to swim so you can enjoy one of those sports, becomes out of reach.” 

Many of the same political and economic forces that shaped communities across the country in terms of limiting opportunities have impacted water safety in these communities, he said. 

“Redlining in terms of real estate, access to pools segregated by neighborhoods that built them versus public pools – all of those come into play without a doubt. And those are historical differences, that, you know, we see the results of today without a doubt.” 

USA Swimming Foundation data regarding swimming proficiency among minority groups is based on a 2017 research report presented to the foundation by the University of Memphis. Researchers there conducted focus groups with minority residents from different areas of the country, looking at factors that included parents’ ability to swim, anxiety about being in the water, access to water and other issues that could affect a child’s ability to learn how to swim. Parental support and enthusiasm for children learning how to swim was one of the most important factors in successful water safety, the report concluded. 

Why this matters

Drowning is the number one cause of unintentional injury deaths for children ages 1-4, and the second leading cause of death for children under 14. Drowning can be prevented through water safety education, swim instruction and learning how to provide CPR with rescue breathing. Swimming is a life skill that is not easily accessible to all residents in our communities.

Addressing disparities in swimming education is why San Diego County is providing $500,000 toward efforts to teach swimming skills in communities around the county. About half the funding is going toward safe swimming instruction, with the remainder used for public awareness campaigning, according to Tim McClain, group communication manager for the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency. The county has supported similar efforts in previous years, but information on past allocations was unavailable.

Community swimming safety programs like those being offered in San Diego County this summer can make a huge difference in preventing drowning accidents in local communities, Shinofield said. Each year, he noted, there are 23 drownings nationally among college athletes and many of those could be prevented by such instruction either by campus or community safety programs, he said.

Between 2016 and 2019 there were 120 drowning deaths and 778 near-drownings in San Diego County.

On average over the same period, slightly more than 3 in 5 drowning and near-drowning cases in San Diego County involved males compared to nearly 2 in 5 female cases.

Drowning and near-drownings have opposite age impacts, officials said, with 60% of drowning deaths involving those 45 and older, while 66% of near-drowning cases were in those under the age of 15.

A series of free summer pool parties with swimming instruction are planned to provide access to communities of concern:

  • Bud Kearns Pool - June 18 / 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. 
  • Fletcher Hills Pool - June 23 / 12:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. 
  • Carmel Valley Pool - July 23 / 12:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. 
  • Vista Terrace Pool - August 5 / 4 p.m. - 8 p.m. 

Search below for a drowning prevention or water safety class in San Diego.

Mark J. Rochester joined inewsource in April 2021 as managing editor. Previously, he was editor in chief of Type Investigations, a national investigative newsroom headquartered in Manhattan. He has held senior management positions overseeing investigative journalism from New York to California, having...