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A look at leading cause of accidental death for toddlers – and how to prevent it

Joining Don Marsh (at left) for a conversation about pool safety this week were (from center left) Emily Wujcik, Stephe McCormick, Birch McMullin and Lisa McMullin.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Many years have passed since one of Lisa McMullin’s children tragically drowned during a family pool party on a warm September day back in 1982. Yet her memory of what occurred is still vivid.

“Nicholas got up from his nap – all the kids but one were out of the pool – and somehow he fell in,” she recalled on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “There were adults there, there were children there, but if there’s not a designated person to watch, you can have a situation like that all too easily. And it happens very fast. It happens silently, almost invisibly, and so I feel very strongly about sharing that story in order to help other parents avoid that situation.”

McMullin joined host Don Marsh for a conversation about water safety as the weather warms up and as Memorial Day, traditionally marking the beginning of the swim season, approaches. 

Her son Birch McMullin, who was 5 years old when his younger brother died, also joined the show, as did Stephe McCormick, owner of Backyard Lifeguards, and Emily Wujcik, aquatics and safety coordinator at Saint Louis University.

Now a franchise owner of British Swim School St. Louis, Birch McMullin noted that drowning deaths still happen “way too often” but don’t get the same attention that other topics do.

“Drowning is actually the No. 1 cause of accidental death for children 1 to 4 [years old], and that’s above car accidents,” he said.

McCormick started her local company following a 2009 drowning in a residential pool in Ladue. She said the company is addressing a lifeguarding gap by providing qualified guards equipped to deal with private locations and prevent such tragedies.

“And basically that’s what we want homeowners to know,” McCormick said. “That when you are operating your home pool as a community pool because you’re hosting a party or you’re having people over, and parents and adults are distracted, you need to provide some of the structure and order that exists in a community pool.”

Along with supervision, Wujcik emphasized that barriers like fences are important as well as preparedness to respond in an emergency.

This “Water Watcher’s badge” provided by British Swim School is worn around the neck with a lanyard. The designated watcher can pass it on to someone else as needed.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
This “Water Watcher’s badge” provided by British Swim School is worn around the neck with a lanyard. The designated watcher can pass it on to someone else as needed.

Birch McMullin added that for very young children, survival skills are key – particularly learning to flip over and float on their back so that they can breathe, call out and be visible.

“Most drownings are not when a toddler sneaks out of the house and manages to get to the pool – it’s actually where the parents have gone to the pool with the child, and maybe they just run inside to grab a soda or they get distracted on the phone,” he said. “So they happen most of the time while there is supervision going on.

“So if a child can roll over and float and call for help, most of the time a parent is then close enough to respond to that. And it buys them that extra time that can turn what could be a very dangerous situation into just a very scary one.”

In addition to private pool settings, the conversation touched on other aspects of water safety as a whole, from backyards to lakefronts, emphasizing the need for further education and training.

There’s also room for more awareness, Lisa McMullin said, and that’s something she’s hoping to build locally.

“It’s been a gift to have Birch involved in this, and us then become reinvolved,” she said. “And I would love to raise awareness in the St. Louis area and have a drowning prevention coalition in St. Louis.”

Listen to the full conversation:

For “10 things to know” and “10 things to do” when it comes to fostering water safety, see these lists of useful tips from Families United to Prevent Drowning. Additional resources and safety tips are available on the National Drowning Prevention Alliance website.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Mary Edwards is a producer for St. Louis Public Radio's broadcast program, "St. Louis Symphony."