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Drownings down but spike each spring, experts say

Before jumping into the crystal blue ocean to cool off from the 80-degree temps this week, make sure you know what color flag the lifeguards are flying, as this is the time of year when most drownings occur.

So far this year two people drowned in pools in Boca Raton and Wellington and one person drowned in the ocean near Singer Island.

Experts say drownings increase in April and May. The rise can be attributed to more swimmers in the water — whether it be in a pool or the ocean — and to stronger rip currents along east coast beaches due to an increase in easterly winds.

While acknowledging the increase that occurs during these two months, experts also say overall drownings have actually decreased the past three years.

In 2012, nine people drowned in the ocean and nine people drowned in a pool, compared with 17 people who drowned in the ocean and 13 in a pool in 2009.

Anna Stewart, the manager of Palm Beach County’s Drowning Prevention Coalition, said she likes to think that the decrease in drownings is due to education.

“The Children’s Services Council has a ‘What If’ campaign and part of that was doing a billboard campaign for water safety,” Stewart said. “Also, we’re out in the community constantly talking about water safety.”

The coalition recommends keeping backyard pools enclosed so children cannot jump in unaccompanied. If someone is drowning, Stewart says to call 911, and to try to give an object to the person in distress to grab onto, instead of jumping in and overwhelming the swimmer.

Steve Kaes, the training officer for Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue’s south district lifeguards, says beach-goers should take note of any flags at the beach and should always go to beaches where a lifeguard is on duty — and then swim in front of that lifeguard.

“If someone sees a flag flying that’s other than green, then they should read the conditions board or speak to a lifeguard and ask them why there’s a warning up for that particular beach,” Kaes said.

Tevin Campbell, 17, died April 18 after drowning near Ocean Reef Park in Riviera Beach. Kaes said he was swimming with other people and lifeguards noticed that he was having trouble swimming.

By the time they got to the water’s edge, he was underwater.

His body was found 45 minutes later, between 20 and 30 yards away from where he originally went under, Kaes said.

He said most beaches — including Ocean Reef, Gulfstream Park in Boynton Beach and South Inlet Park in Boca Raton — have portable rip current signs that are planted in the sand every day.

When caught in a rip current, let the current take you out, Kaes said. Start swimming parallel to the shore once you don’t feel yourself being pulled away by the current.

“The main thing is don’t panic,” Kaes said. “The best thing is always to swim in front of a lifeguard. If you’re not making any progress getting back to the beach, wave or yell for help.”

An increase in easterly winds in April and May “significantly” increase the risk of rip currents along East Coast beaches, according to Robert Molleda, National Weather Service’s warning coordination meteorologist.

“A sharp increase in drowning deaths and rescues caused by rip currents occurs during the spring months due in part to this shift in wind patterns,” he said.

Molleda also recommended swimming near a lifeguard.

Adding to the problem of rip currents is people on vacation who may not know how to swim well.

“More people come down who don’t know how to swim in the ocean,” said Doug Jenkins, the county medical examiner’s forensic investigator.

While the number of those who have drowned so far this year is low, “it’s still early,” Jenkins said.

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