Kid Drownings

After decades of failure, the well-intentioned still don't get it

In the decades-long partnership between business leaders and the state's media on childhood drownings, not a single organization has ever done the sort of demographic analysis routinely done by these same organizations to make decisions about content or market share.

Had anyone in the private sector sought such an analysis, they would have been confronted by a government morass of conflicting data between city, state and regional files -- records so compromised that the CDC flags numbers during certain periods as anomalies that cannot be confirmed. In 1999, for example, four different agencies have four different numbers on how many children actually drowned in the Valley of the Sun.

Despite such obstacles, there are clear lessons in the dusty filing cabinets.

Assistant Fire Chief Bob Khan takes each drowning personally.
Assistant Fire Chief Bob Khan takes each drowning personally.
The firefighters of Maryvale’s Station 25 see more drownings than any station in the country.
Irvin Serrano
The firefighters of Maryvale’s Station 25 see more drownings than any station in the country.

The New Times investigation of relevant paperwork revealed that the vast majority of all childhood drownings appear to occur in three west-side zip codes, a relatively compact piece of geography generally known as the Maryvale area. Because of spotty recordkeeping, conclusions are educated deductions, but the Phoenix Fire Department's spokesman, Bob Khan, confirms that his records also show that 85 percent of childhood drownings occur in this neighborhood.

And what does a researcher find within these three zip codes?

According to city records, there are just over 1,700 pools in greater Maryvale; only 10 percent are secured by a fence. More than 1,500 of these particular pools have no fence. With more than 125,000 pools in the Valley, fewer than 2 percent of those pools account for 85 percent of the childhood fatalities.

The major difference between Maryvale and other, newer suburbs is the number of unfenced pools. With a mix of rentals and low-cost housing, the working poor of Maryvale's neighborhoods often lack the money to erect fencing.

The link between pool fencing and the income level in Maryvale has never been made in any story in the 32 years the press and community leaders have addressed the issue of childhood drowning in Arizona. Instead, the airwaves and print media have spent decades preaching parental vigilance when children are around water.

While adult supervision is clearly critical during the swim season, it is just as clear that parental vigilance is the wrong message; the records are unambiguous: The overwhelming majority of childhood fatalities occur in the off-season when the kids are thought to be nowhere near the pool; the overwhelming majority of childhood fatalities occur where unfenced swimming pools are the norm.

The consequences of not doing the research necessary to understand the problem only underscores the tragedy: In 2002, one small step in the overall media blitz was taken by Fulton Homes. The developer teamed with radio station KSLX to install pool fences, seemingly a step in the right direction. But only 12 fences were erected. Of those, only one was in Maryvale.

The rate of pool-related injuries in the Valley has remained "relatively unchanged," according to an internal study conducted by Dr. Tim Flood for the Arizona Department of Health Services and published to no fanfare or media coverage this past June.

Within weeks of ADHS' sobering assessment, Gannett media properties in Phoenix were nonetheless declaring victory in the battle against childhood drownings.

On September 3, 2002, the first day after Labor Day weekend, the Arizona Republic announced on the front page that summer drownings had been cut in half. The story ran under the public relations/civic journalism logo: Target Zero, One Drowning Is Too Many.

"If we had a part in raising education and helping stop drownings, you can't ask for much more than that for a successful campaign," says Gene D'Adamo, the Republic's vice president of community relations.

Announcing a 50 percent reduction was wildly premature and misleading, according to numerous sources interviewed for this article.

The very weekend after the self-congratulatory press coverage, the pool fatalities resumed, with two deaths and one near-drowning.

In 2002, the number of childhood fatalities in Phoenix is down 20 percent from 2001, from 15 to 12, but the drop is hardly significant in terms of the long-term record. In 12 of the 32 years that statistics have been kept, the number of drownings has dropped. But they always rise again.


There is no evidence to suggest that Target Zero had any impact on this year's numbers. In fact, the evidence suggests just the opposite. New Times commissioned a poll in the general area of Maryvale, and specifically in the three zip codes where 85 percent of all childhood drownings occur historically. Only 6 percent of those contacted could link Target Zero's motto -- Block, Watch, Lock and Learn -- to water safety. Only 4 percent of those contacted could correctly identify Target Zero with water safety. And only 3 percent of those contacted remembered one of the Salt River Project's giveaways, like a can cozy emblazoned with the Target Zero pool-safety message.

By contrast, more than 50 percent of those contacted by pollsters from Behavior Research recalled the message of safety from the fire department, a message firefighters from Phoenix and Glendale delivered door-to-door in greater Maryvale.

The good intentions of the press are not simply misguided, ignoring the role of fences and the data on how toddlers die year-round, but also virtually unknown in the neighborhood primarily afflicted with this tragedy. Community activists and firefighters, whose efforts are indeed remembered by Maryvale residents, are several steps ahead of the media. They acknowledge there is a problem in Maryvale, and it is reflected in their march door to door. But their primary message of adult vigilance ignores the economic reality of more than 1,500 unfenced pools in greater Maryvale.

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Diane Moore
Diane Moore

The solution to this is soooooo simple, yet seems to be too much trouble for these parents. All they have to do is WATCH their children... and be sure they are taught safety in and around water. My grandbaby is 2 1/2 years and can swim like a fish. He is just finishing an ISR Swimming course this week... I do NOT believe in fences, they give false security. I raised 5 extremely active (and sometimes naughty) children without a fence around our pool, and they are all grown up now... I can appreciate that parents are busy sometimes, but it only takes a few seconds to safely strap a baby/toddler in their high chair, or put a baby in their crib or playpen... and KEEP the doors and windows locked. When my grandbaby visits our home, I wear the key to the backyard around my neck... so I know its locked. Also, I am aware of where he is EVERY single second while he is in my care. Thats all there is to it.

Susan Freyer
Susan Freyer

Don't you sleep? Ever? Children get out when parents and children are supposedly sleeping. It happens. But yeah. It's sooooooo simple.

David Stone
David Stone

Or maybe it's the shitty parents who are having too many kids? Jesus Christ, you fucking Arizona idiots make me sick.


were u with my cousin when this happened? what was her reaction? where was steven ( her Husband) or clifford? what did she say? i dont mean to bother you or bring up something unpleasent but i have heard it was no accident what happened to the boys. and i am trying to find out the truth

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