In the U.S., about 10 people die per day by unintentionally drowning. The Allegheny YMCA is doing their part to fix this problem.

By Briana Canady

Photo: Allegheny YMCA

For years, the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh has aimed to reduce drowning rates and help children learn how they can be safe in the water. The Allegheny YMCA recently received a $5,000 grant from Y-USA, which will be used to provide 75 scholarships for swim instruction to local families in need. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average of 3,536 unintentionally fatal drowning incidents have occurred in the U.S. between 2005 and 2014. This equates to approximately 10 deaths per day. One in five of these unintentional deaths are children aged 14 or younger. The statistics are even higher for African Americans. Accidental drowning is the leading cause of death of African American youth; Between 2000 and 2007, across all ages, African Americans’ fatal unintentional drowning rate was 1.3 times that of white people.

Allegheny YMCA Aquatics Director Morgan Clifford said this is the second time the Northside YMCA has applied for a grant. In 2020, the Y was able to provide 50 scholarships for water safety courses. 

“The purpose of these scholarships is to provide greater opportunity to reach all varieties of demographics within our community,” Clifford said.

The main goal of the YMCA’s swimming program is to teach those who are at more risk of drowning how to practice water-specific safety. The lessons taught in the program highlight the basic benchmark skills of swimming: One of the popular methods taught to younger children is “swim, float, swim,” where children swim a short distance on their front, turn onto their back to float, and then turn back to their front to continue swimming. The sequence helps children learn to stay afloat until someone arrives to help them or they are able to get to safety using the combined skills. The other skill taught in the Y’s swimming lessons is the “jump, push, turn, grab,” where a child jumps into the water, pushes off the bottom of the pool, turns around to face the pool’s wall, grabs the wall, and then safely exits.

In order to help educate more children on ways to be safer in the water, Shawn Haupt, the associate vice president of Aquatics and Youth Sports, stated that the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh is working with school districts in the community to help more families who may not have the financial means to pay for swim lessons.

 “The Y teaches children of all ages and backgrounds that water should be fun, not feared, and this practice builds confidence and saves lives,” Haupt said. 

The Y, which offers a swimming program for children to learn water safety, teaches participants that water should be fun, not feared. Photo: Y-USA

The Pittsburgh area has had a number of drowning deaths within the past year alone. In September of last year, a man reportedly drowned before his body was discovered in the Monongahela River. A few months before that, in July 2020, an 86-year-old man drowned in a pool.

One emergency medical service that has helped prevent and has responded to emergencies in the waterways around the Pittsburgh area is the Pittsburgh River Rescue. The Pittsburgh River Rescue is one of a few EMS-based safety dive teams in the nation, with a mission to help mitigate unintentional deaths and provide lifesaving care.

According to an article in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS), “the best practice for mitigating these deaths is prevention through safe boating education, the use of personal flotation devices, mental health treatment, and infrastructure around waterways.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Clifford said that because more people have visited swimming locations where there aren’t lifeguards or safety precautions in place, the number of accidental drowning incidents has actually increased.

“Most accidental drowning incidents have occured in a home swimming pool, but as children get older, they are more likely to visit natural water locations, which lead to more cases of teenagers accidentally drowning in natural flowing watercourses,” Clifford said.

The Allegheny Y is currently open during the pandemic, with plans to remain open for the summer. They have been closely following CDC guidelines to protect the staff and guests and prevent spreading COVID-19. In order to promote social distancing, the swimming program of the Allegheny Y has implemented rules where masks are required in all areas of the facility except when in the pool and no more than one swimmer can occupy a swimming lane. 

Drowning is a public health problem in this country. The best way for people interested in receiving a scholarship to learn about water safety or to join the swimming program is to call Allegheny Y’s Northside branch at 412-321-8594 or stop in at 600 W. North Ave. The Allegheny Y also offers a one-day free trial membership for people to better understand what the program involves.

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