Is Oregon doing enough to prevent drownings? 'We probably need to push a little harder'

Is Oregon doing enough to prevent drownings? 'We probably need to push a little harder'

PORTLAND, Ore. - Is Oregon doing everything it can to prevent drownings?

In the wake of 10 deaths in 10 days in Oregon and SW Washington, the On Your Side Investigators found that Oregon lags behind neighboring states in drowning-prevention efforts, even as it has more drownings per capita.

Statistics show the overall death rate from drowning is higher in Oregon, which has the 10th highest number of drownings per capita in the contiguous United States.

Every state bordering Oregon has a lower rate of drowning deaths.

KATU News found the levels of attention different states pay to prevention and water safety outreach varies substantially.

Drowning is one of the leading causes of accidental deaths in the U.S., especially among kids - a fact less than 20 percent of people are aware of. But it's the second-leading cause of death in children under 15.

If you're under 18, the only things more likely to kill you are car accidents, cancer, homicide, suicide and congenital defects.

It turns out, the lack of awareness has a potential cure.

A study in King County, Washington found that public campaigns can tangibly increase awareness and people's likelihood to implement safety measures.

The study found that a 1999 campaign in the Seattle area led to an increase in life-vest use from 20 to 34 percent, and that life-vest ownership among kids increased from 69 percent to 80 percent.

"A community-wide drowning prevention campaign resulted in a significant, although modest, increase in reported life vest use and ownership among children," the study concluded.

The Oregon Health Authority said as much in its five-year injury prevention plan covering 2011-2015.

"Drowning is a frequent and preventable injury problem, especially for  children," the plan reads. "Most drowning deaths occur in the summer months, and what makes Oregon  somewhat unique is the frequent occurrence of drowning deaths in water bodies fed by snow  melt — mostly cold-running rivers found throughout the state." 

In Oregon, water safety PSAs are sometimes posted on social media, but they haven’t been sent to television stations since 2011, when the Oregon State Marine Board lost media funding to make more.

Both Oregon and Washington have local Safe Kids chapters with online resources, but Washington takes goes a step further. It has an additional Washington State Drowning Prevention Network that did media tours in 2013 and 2014.

That Washington network also applied for a federal grant to put together a comprehensive, five-year plan with specific strategies to decrease the number of drowning deaths as well as specific ways to measure success overtime.

Oregon also has a five-year plan
, but drowning prevention is part of a broader child injury prevention plan and is sixth on the priority list. There are fewer, less specific strategies.

Safe Kids Oregon Director Ruth Harshfield, who is also part of Oregon Public Health, said that plan will be updated next year and there are a number of factors that prioritize state resources.

“Due to magnitude of the injury issues, and ability to staff the priorities comprehensively, the top four injury priorities we are working to impact are suicide, motor vehicle traffic, falls and poisonings,” Harshfield said in an email response to KATU News.  “Although not a top priority, drowning prevention is important.”

On the local level, Portland Fire and Rescue spokesman Rich Chatman admits there’s room for improvement.

“Certainly it's one of those we realize this is an area we probably need to push a little harder,” Chatman said. “It's an issue of time, money and priorities. We're trying to make our way through those priorities right now.”

Chatman said the high number of drowning deaths came quickly this year.

“One very effective tool we’ve been using lately is social media,” he said. “I think we’re going to see some more safety messaging from us when it comes to water safety.”