You go to the doctor’s office for a routine check-up and the doctor says, “you need surgery to remove your appendix, immediately”. You are shocked, stunned, and highly skeptical. After all, the doctor hasn’t examined you, hasn’t asked if you have any pain or symptoms that would indicate that your appendix needs to be removed, hasn’t even asked why you are at the doctor’s office. The doctor has given you no reason to follow his recommendation. Of course you don’t follow the treatment plan, especially one that changes your routines and disrupts your life, without first having an understanding of why you need the surgery.
We wouldn’t let a doctor treat us without first diagnosing a problem, yet we expect blind acceptance and change in behavior from the public when it comes to water safety.
We are asking people to change their behavior without understanding why. We are trying to treat a problem, drowning, without explaining why, the diagnosis, to the public.
When you know enough to be an expert, you forget that not everyone else has the same knowledge base.
We need to step back, explain to the public why they should care about water safety, why they need to learn about water safety, and then educate them. Not just keep dictating rules and changes in behavior and then gather together to grumble, ‘stupid public, they just don’t understand and they don’t care’ when no one follows our rules. I promise you, they do care. Parents want their children to live. If parents truly understood that drowning is an epidemic and that learning swimming or survival swimming would have a lifelong positive impact on their child, we’d see an increase in enrollment in swimming and survival swim classes.
Before you start grumbling that, ‘we are raising awareness’, let me share the results of the interviews conducted at the Daytona 500 races after the water safety videos were shown. We intentionally crafted questions that would identify how much the public knows about drowning – what our starting point should be for awareness and communication campaigns. While the results were not widespread enough to be definitive, they were unmistakably consistent. People are not aware drowning is an issue. They don’t know what age group is at the highest rate of drowning. The public doesn’t know where drowning can occur. They may have some ideas, but there is virtually no educated knowledge.
We’re having heated intellectual debates about what to call a life jacket (or PFD or buoyancy aid or level V life jacket or..or…or…), but we aren’t successfully reaching the 98% of people who are not aquatics professionals to explain why they should even care about life jackets enough to buy them, learn how and when to wear them, and to then wear them consistently even when no one else is looking. And the same problem applies to every other aspect of water safety.
What this lack of a diagnosis, and the lack of awareness in the public, means is that every program, every campaign, every initiative needs to pull back and have the first line of engagement be a diagnosis, a ‘this is why the issue of water safety affects you’.
To prove my point, let me give you some examples of sound bites you can drop into conversation to determine how much people know:
Did you know….
one child drowns every minute? (global stat)
that drowning is a hidden global epidemic? (global stat)
that drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury death in the U.S. for children ages 1-4? (U.S.)
that drowning is one of the top ten causes of unintentional injury death in the U.S.? (U.S.)
that children aged 2 are most at risk for drowning in virtually every country? (global and U.S.)
that children can drown in bathtubs, buckets, anywhere there is 2 inches of water? (global)
that drowning can occur in 2 minutes in 2 inches of water? (global)
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, and I think we can assume it is ‘no’ for most of the populations, then start with awareness, and make it personal, explain why someone needs to understand – if they have children, a boat, live near water, vacation near water – then you can start issuing water safety prescriptions.