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updated: 7/20/2012 12:08 PM

Drowning deaths rise with the temperature

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  • Swimmers are not allowed to hit the water at Breezewald Beach in Lake Zurich without a lifeguard on duty.

       Swimmers are not allowed to hit the water at Breezewald Beach in Lake Zurich without a lifeguard on duty.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Courtesy of the Gurnee Park DistrictLifeguards simulate a water rescue at a Gurnee Park District pool. The district received the Ellis & Associates "Gold International Safety Award" for 2011 for their pursuant to consistently "exceeding" the criteria for aquatic safety certification.

      Courtesy of the Gurnee Park DistrictLifeguards simulate a water rescue at a Gurnee Park District pool. The district received the Ellis & Associates "Gold International Safety Award" for 2011 for their pursuant to consistently "exceeding" the criteria for aquatic safety certification.

 
 

Along with soaring temperatures and rising humidity, the ongoing heat wave has contributed to a spike in drowning deaths in some suburban areas, authorities say.

In Lake County, the coroner reports that accidental drownings have nearly doubled since last year, averaging about one a week this summer. And it's only mid-July.

So far in 2012, there have been 11 drownings in Lake County, with six of them occurring in the past six or seven weeks, Lake County Coroner Artis Yancey said. Compare that to 2011, when a total of six accidental drownings occurred in the county.

"This oppressive heat ... has drawn more people to the water," Yancey said. "A few (of the drownings) had alcohol as a factor, and that's one thing we'd recommend or warn against. Leave alcohol out of the equation."

Swimming solo, neglecting to follow guidelines, inexperience with swimming or boating and overestimating one's ability can also contribute to death by drowning, Yancey said.

"People think they may be stronger swimmers than they are," Yancey said. "That's why it's important to go in a group."

Earlier this month, a 28-year-old Chicago man attempted to swim to shore from a boat in Lake Villa's Deep Lake. He never made it.

A 63-year-old man from Berwyn drowned in Loon Lake after he jumped in for a swim from a pontoon boat. He could not climb back on, and when his friend jumped in to help, their boat floated away. The friend was rescued.

The number of accidental drownings isn't as dramatic in other suburban counties, though the summer still has weeks to go.

Sixteen people have drowned in the collar counties so far this year, compared to 22 in all of 2011. The Cook County medical examiner's office did not provide statistics.

Kane and McHenry counties have each had one drowning, Will County has had three and DuPage County has had none.

Accidental drownings in Cook County include a 4-year-old boy who drowned in a Glenview pool while attending a day camp on June 15 and a 9-year-old boy who died in a neighbor's swimming pool in south suburban Lansing on June 28.

A number of drownings have occurred in Lake Michigan, where offshore water temperatures in Chicago rose to an inviting 80 degrees earlier this month, very unusual for so early in the season.

Rip currents, which can quickly pull swimmers away from shore, have been strong in Lake Michigan. To escape, swimmers are told to swim parallel to shore until the current eases, then swim diagonally back to shore.

Drowning ranks as the fifth-leading cause of unintentional injury death in the U.S., with men, minorities, and children age 4 and younger most at risk, according to the Lake County Health Department/Community Health Center.

Suburban drownings -- like the man who lost his footing on a boat, another man who jumped into the Fox River to cool off, and the child left unsupervised in a backyard pool -- serve as sobering reminders of the dangers water poses.

Which is why Arlington Heights Park District Aquatics Program Supervisor Steve Neill encourages people to maintain a healthy respect for water.

"Drowning is quick, drowning is quiet and you don't know what's happening," he said.

This year, the park district added a third level to its swim proficiency test for kids who come to the pool with day camps or other groups, but Neill said it's an in-house change and not a result of any recent drowning headlines.

The test gives children colored tape bracelets to wear to show lifeguards they're safe to be in deep water or on the diving board. Neill said it's a common practice among suburban park districts.

"You spend so much time training the staff, but they're not there to be baby sitters. They're there to keep everyone safe," he said.

Arlington Heights Park District lifeguards perform 60 to 75 rescues per season, a number that remains consistent no matter what the weather, Neill said.

"The scariest ones are when the little kids get away from mom or dad or try to follow their older siblings into the water," he said.

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