Shal­low depths be­lie haz­ards at pop­u­lar wa­ter­parks


With their ap­peal­ing slides and wave pools, wa­ter­parks are in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar places to spend a sum­mer day. But the shal­low wa­ters be­lie haz­ards that ex­perts say visi­tors who are fo­cused on the fun may be un­der­es­ti­mat­ing.

As the parks pro­lif­er­ate, con­cern is grow­ing about the risks present even when most of the wa­ter is shal­lower than a me­ter (3 feet) — peo­ple who aren’t good swim­mers mixed with the un­ex­pected hit of waves and falls that can lead to con­cus­sions or even drown­ings. The Amer­i­can Red Cross, a lead­ing trainer of life­guards, has taken note and added train­ing for ex­treme shal­low wa­ter res­cues.

“We pretty much have an am­bu­lance call ev­ery week­end,” said Brian Machemer, su­per­in­ten­dent of the Rolling Hills Wa­ter Park in Yp­si­lanti Town­ship. He added, “On av­er­age, we prob­a­bly have a pull-out a day. Now, that isn’t al­ways a se­ri­ous in­ci­dent. But it’s some­body who’s strug­gling that we feel we need to help out.”

While no fig­ures are avail­able for over­all wa­ter­park in­juries, the Red Cross cited U.S. Con­sumer Prod­uct Safety Com­mis­sion es­ti­mates. Those show about 4,200 peo­ple a year taken to emer­gency rooms to be treated for scrapes, con­cus­sions, bro­ken limbs, spinal in­juries and other such in­juries suf­fered on public wa­ter­slides. Those num­bers, though, do not in­clude other wa­ter­park in­juries or those who need life­guard as­sis­tance with­out a hos­pi­tal trip.

“You’re in an en­vi­ron­ment that is ex­tremely fun but can be ex­tremely dan­ger­ous if you’re not vig­i­lant,” said Roy Field­ing, a se­nior lec­turer at the Univer­sity of North Carolina-Char­lotte and a spe­cial­ist in life­guard­ing and wa­ter safety who is on the Red Cross Sci­en­tific Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil.

In July alone, one drown­ing and at least three near-drown­ings were re­ported at U.S. wa­ter­parks. A 5-yearold girl drowned in a shal­low area of a wave pool at a mu­nic­i­pal-owned wa­ter­park in Grand Is­land, Ne­braska. The wave pool was not op­er­at­ing at the time.

Two of the near-drown­ings in­volved chil­dren in Mis­souri and Cal­i­for­nia at mu­nic­i­pal-run wa­ter­parks — a grow­ing seg­ment of the in­dus­try as cities and coun­ties look to boost rev­enue from what their flat-wa­ter pools de­liver. The other was at a cor­po­ra­te­owned wa­ter­park in Utah. The Mis­souri in­ci­dent in­volved a 6-year-old girl who hit her head on the bot­tom of a kid­die pool. The other two oc­curred in wave pools, which are shal­low at the en­trance but usu­ally slope to at least 1.5 me­ters (5 feet) deep.

“One of the things that can hap­pen is in our wave pool peo­ple aren’t used to be­ing hit by waves of wa­ter,” Machemer said. Things like get­ting wa­ter in the mouth and swal­low­ing, he said, “can set off a panic re­ac­tion.”

About 1,300 wa­ter­parks are op­er­at­ing in North Amer­ica, up about 30 per­cent from a decade ago, ac­cord­ing to the trade group World Wa­ter­park As­so­ci­a­tion. Those parks at­tracted about 83 mil­lion peo­ple in 2013, com­pared to about 73 mil­lion in 2004.

The Red Cross this year added 22.5 hours of train­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion specif­i­cally for ex­treme shal­low wa­ter res­cue. The Aquatic At­trac­tion Life­guard­ing course in­cludes tech­niques for han­dling and re­mov­ing peo­ple, which can be dif­fer­ent than in deep­wa­ter pools, and first-aid train­ing em­pha­siz­ing care for head, neck and spinal in­juries.

“We laser-fo­cus on the spe­cific kinds of things that would oc­cur in 3 feet or less,” said Stephanie Shook, who de­signed the pro­gram as Red Cross se­nior man­ager of in­struc­tor en­gage­ment. “The kind of things that typ­i­cally hap­pen are slips, trips and falls.”

Nearly 1,000 peo­ple have taken the ex­treme shal­low wa­ter train­ing since it launched in Jan­uary, the Red Cross said.

Be­yond more train­ing for life­guards, Machemer said the shal­low depths give non-swim­mers a false sense of safety and too many chil­dren go to wa­ter- parks with­out know­ing how to swim.

“I do be­lieve that the lack of swim lessons in to­day’s age has also caused some of the prob­lems we’re see­ing at the wa­ter­park — that peo­ple just aren’t com­fort­able swimming as they used to be,” he said.


Life­guards Lau­ren Cook, from left, Chris Fen­rich and David Frey sim­u­late a shal­low wa­ter res­cue on a wa­ter slide at the Rolling Hills Wa­ter Park in Yp­si­lanti, Michigan, Aug. 5.

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