Forty children under the age of four losing their lives in a 10-year period … it’s hard to fathom the effect that has on families and communities. What’s even harder to comprehend is that all those deaths – from 2011-2021 – were preventable.
Another 850 youngsters needed medical attention – coming awfully close to joining those alarming figures.
But these deaths didn’t occur in a war-torn area or Third World country. They happened in Queensland, where youngsters are always at a high risk of drowning. In fact, drowning is the leading external cause of death for children under five.
The sobering statistics are provided in a report from the Queensland Family and Child Commission (QFCC). The QFCC has a legislated responsibility to maintain a register of all child deaths occurring in the state, to report on trends and patterns and conduct research aimed at preventing future fatalities. The report, Safer Pathways Through Childhood 2022-2027: a framework to guide the Queensland Family and Child Commission’s Child death prevention activities, highlights “a clear need to increase public awareness of the importance of maintaining pool fencing and of appropriate supervision for young children”.
The report acknowledges that getting wet and cooling down is an intrinsic part of the Queensland lifestyles, with many families relishing their backyard swimming pools, especially. But those pools can pose a significant safety risk to young children – no matter how careful we try to be. Heart-wrenching tragedy can occur in the blink of an eye, yet be felt by loved ones and witnesses for the rest of their lives.
Whether your child is The Wild One (‘little water, lotta trouble’), The Quiet One (‘good as gold … until you stop watching’) or The Bolter (‘gone in a splash’), Royal Life Saving’s long-established Keep Watch program asks all parents to remember four little words to ensure children’s safety around water: supervise, restrict, teach and respond.
Active supervision isn’t sitting on a towel, 10m away from the shoreline or chatting to friends beside the pool. It means being within arms’ reach and focusing all of your attention on the littlies the whole time they are in, on or around the water.
Restricting access means placing a barrier between the child and the water. Sometimes that barrier is yourself. Most often, it is a pool fence with a self-closing and self-latching gate, or closing the door to the bathroom after use, covering pools, spas and tanks, placing mesh on water features and fishponds, and securely fastening lids on nappy buckets.
Knowing how to respond to a water emergency by learning cardiopulmonary resuscitation and being ready to call 000 in an emergency can prevent deaths. As a family member is often the first on the scene in a drowning/near-drowning, water locations around the home should be checked first if a child goes missing.
Water awareness or familiarisation classes focus on the gradual introduction of very basic skills such as moving in the water and getting the face wet. Emma Dommett, co-owner of Shapland Swim Schools Aura in Baringa, agrees, saying teaching youngsters to swim “should definitely be top of the list” in parental priorities. As a swim coach and mother, the alarming statistics of child drownings don’t sit well with her.
“It’s really sad because (those drownings) could have been prevented if they had some form of swimming lessons. It’s really upsetting,” she says.
Emma, the mother of twin boys aged nine, and a four-year-old daughter, says Shapland Swim Schools specialises in teaching babies from five or six months up to five years. Parents could do the lead-up work before five months at home in the bath and the shower, getting the baby used to the feel of water on their body and face.
“Around two or three is probably the highest amount of kids who start learning but that’s not early enough,” she says.
“They just learn so much quicker from a baby. They don’t know any different when they’ve learnt from six months old, whereas when they’re two or three, they’re more aware and have that little bit of fear if they haven’t been around water.”
Shapland coaches take a gently, gently approach for instructing babies.
“We don’t do any form of dunking,” says Emma, who runs the Aura franchise with sister Sally, brother Isaac and his partner Maddy (Sally and husband John opened the first Shapland Swim School franchise at Kallangur, north of Brisbane, in 1992).
“At five months, they can have the water over their heads to start with. Eventually, they will be falling in on their own into the water. The baby is in control themselves when falling in forwards off the mat, off the stairs, off the wall. They feel no trauma because they are in control.
“When they just fall off the stairs naturally, there’s an instinct to hold their breath. When we jump in the pool, we automatically hold our breath and it’s the same for them. They can’t get back to the wall at six months old. They just need to be able to hold their breath and that’s what we work on: extending their breath under the water (to give rescuers time to get to them).”
Sunshine Coast Council is pleading with pool owners to help prevent a tragedy this summer, or risk receiving a $23,000 fine.
Service Excellence Portfolio Councillor Christian Dickson says pool owners must conduct regular checks to ensure their pool fences and gates are safe and compliant.
“Fencing and gates become faulty with wear and tear, so council encourages every pool owner to follow our free pool safety checklist regularly to provide a safe environment for their families, tenants and visitors,” Cr Dickson says.
“Some people deliberately prop pool gates open for convenience, and sadly this was a factor in more than 25 per cent of early childhood drownings recorded in our state over the past 10 years.
“Please take time to educate your family, your kids, the grandparents and even visitors to your home about the importance of shutting the gate, and keeping it closed.
“You may think it will never happen to you, until the unthinkable happens. Please don’t become the next statistic.”
The Queensland pool safety standard regulates the location, height and strength of barriers, non-climbable zones, gate-latching requirements and prohibits direct access from a building into a pool area. The standard applies to excavations or structures capable of being filled with water to a depth of 300mm and intended for swimming, wading, bathing and paddling, including spas and inflatable wading pools.
Pool owners and occupiers can be fined more than $23,000 for failing to ensure a pool gate is securely closed.
As well as compliant fencing, adult supervision of children around pools is a must. The QFCC report identified that supervision was considered inadequate in 65 per cent of early childhood pool fatalities.
“Regardless of what else is going on, whether it’s a busy time of day or there are visitors in the home, a responsible adult must be watching young children in the pool area and ensure pool gates are securely closed,” Cr Dickson says.
For pool safety compliance, go to sunshinecoast.qld.gov.au/development/building/swimming-pools. To ensure your pool meets safety standards, visit qbcc.qld.gov.au/your-property/swimming-pools/pool-safety-standard. For more on Shapland Swim Schools Aura, see shapland.com.au/locations/swim-school-aura.
by the numbers
- Queensland has almost 400,000 registered swimming pools required to comply with the pool safety standard introduced in 2010 (regulated pools).
- Forty children aged 0–4 years lost their lives in regulated pools between 2011 and 2021, and a further 853 received medical attention after a non-fatal immersion incident.
- Despite the strong standards, faulty fencing, gates that don’t latch or have been purposely
propped open accounted for 90 per cent of pool fatalities and life-threatening immersions.
- The supervision of young children was considered inadequate for the circumstances in 65 per cent of fatal immersions.
Source: Safer Pathways Through Childhood 2022-2027: a framework to guide the Queensland Family and Child Commission’s Child death prevention activities.
How to keep your child safe
- Have everything ready for bathing before placing your child anywhere near bath water.
- Keep bath water to a minimum depth.
- Never leave babies alone while they are in the bath or around water.
- Remain within arm’s reach of your child and never leave a child alone around water.
- Create a safe play area to restrict your child’s access to water.
- Ensure a pool fence is correctly installed, regularly maintained and gate is never left open.
- Establish simple rules such as no going near water without an adult.
- Never leave a young child in the care of older children.
- Enrol your child in water- familiarisation lessons.
- Empty buckets/containers that can hold water, including portable pools when not in use.
- Update your CPR skills annually.
Tips to make your pool compliant
- Reduce the height of surrounding ground levels and garden beds to make sure your entire fence has a minimum height of 1200mm measured from the ground.
- Adjust gate hinges to make the gate self-closing.
- Oil the gate hinges and latch to make sure the gate is self-closing and self-latching.
- Shield any climbable objects by securely attaching a non-climbable material such as flat polycarbonate sheeting to the outside of the fence.
- Trim climbable vegetation and tree branches that are within 900mm of the pool fence (if branches overhang from next door, negotiate with your neighbour to remove them).
- Secure all moveable objects near the pool to ensure nothing can be moved within 900mm on the outside and within 300mm on the inside.
- Permanently adjust windows that open directly into the pool area so they can’t open more than 100mm (using a window lock alone does not comply).
- Install permanently fixed security screens on windows to prevent a child gaining access to the pool from inside the house.
- Ensure your louvres have gaps of less than 100mm between the blades.
Source: qbcc.qld.gov.au (Queensland Building and Construction Commission)