At ZAC Camp, Philly students learn the ABC&D’s of water safety

This week, the ZAC Foundation, a Conn.-based water safety advocacy and education foundation, held its ZAC Camp at R.W. Brown Community Center in partnership with the Caring People Alliance Boys and Girls Club, the Red Cross of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Fire and Police Departments. 

The camp is currently teaching more than 100 5 to 9-year-olds the importance of water safety through swimming classes, classroom work , and various hands-on activities, including time with first responders. 

We spoke with Karen Cohn, co-founder of The ZAC Foundation, about pool drain safety, water safety, and ZAC Camp.

What main message do you talk to with parents about drowning? 

Sadly, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death of children 14 and younger, and according to recent statistics released by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, on average eight people drown each day.

My husband and I started The ZAC Foundation in 2008 after our 6-year-old son Zachary, drowned after his arm became entrapped by the powerful suction of our backyard pool drain.

Like many parents we have met along this journey, we thought we did everything we could to protect our children around water— like enrolling our kids in swimming classes, laying out the rules of the pool and insuring intense supervision—but we had never heard of the potential dangers lying just below the surface of our pool.

Zachary, like many other children who have become entrapped, was a strong and proficient swimmer, but swimming skills are not enough to combat an entrapment. Through our work, we aim to educate parents and families on the full scope of water safety to ensure their families are safe.

What are common things adults miss when it comes to water safety?

We always encourage parents to be vigilant in monitoring their children in the water even if the pool or beach has a lifeguard. Phones, books, and conversations are distractions. A drowning can happen in seconds—it is quick and silent unlike how Hollywood depicts it in movies. 

We recommend that parents or caregivers designate a Water Watcher during a specified period of time, like 15 to 20 minutes. The Water Watcher’s sole job is to stay focused on the water and not engaged in any additional activities. In addition, we encourage swimmers to also keep their eyes on the Water Watcher. If they become distracted in any way, the swimmer should regain their attention on the water.

What are some key messages parents should discuss with children about water safety? 

Swimming is a fun and healthy activity and we encourage parents to engage their families in it together, but safely. We believe that families should create a plan for water safety—we call it the ABC&Ds of water safety. You can read more about it here. By visiting The ZAC Foundation website, you can learn more about water safety and how to protect your family from drain entrapment.  A short video can also be found here.


Can adults tell if the drain at their local pool is up federal safety standards?

Public pools and spas are subject to a law called the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act which requires multiple layers of protection including an anti-entrapment drain cover, dual drains and a shut off system like a Suction Vacuum Release System or an emergency shut off switch.

However, VGB only applies to public pools and spas or roughly 2 percent of all pools and spas in the country. Private pools and spas, including those at your house, your neighbor’s house or even a grandparent’s house, are not always subject to the same strict requirements. These are governed by each state individually. Some states have strong pool and spa construction laws while others have very weak ones. 

If you are planning to swim in any pool or spa, ask the operator if the pool or spa is VBG compliant.  If it is a private establishment, ask the service company if the pool or spa is protected with anti-entrapment drain covers and systems. If the answer is no, do not allow any swimmers in the water. 

Further, before entering any pool or spa we recommend visually inspecting all drains. If you notice a loose or missing drain cover, or if the drain is blocked with debris, shut down the pool or spa immediately and alert the appropriate operators or service professionals so the drain can be fixed.

It is also important to make sure every swimmer knows where to locate and operate the emergency shut off for the pool pump as well as knows how to dial 9-1-1.

We also encourage all swimmers to stay away from drains as limbs, hair and clothing can easily become entrapped. Long hair should always be pulled back while swimming.

Can you tell us more about ZAC Camp? What feedback have you received?

ZAC Camps combine in-pool swimming lessons, safety classes with first responders and a classroom curriculum based on the ABC&Ds of water safety taught in the children’s book my husband and I co-authored, The Polar Bear Who Couldn’t, Wouldn’t Swim. By week’s end campers are equipped with critical tools to lead them on the path to safe swimming.

We have received amazing feedback from campers and their parents. Each year we hear stories of children too afraid to even get in the water at the beginning of a ZAC Camp and by week’s end they are swimming and even putting their heads under water.  Through our partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, ZAC Camps are in more than 22 states from coast to coast and have taught more than 10,000 children and families the importance of water safety. 

It is because of Zachary that all of this is possible. His memory guides each and every ZAC Camp and all that we do at The ZAC Foundation.