Researchers at the University of Canberra have reviewed the existing research on infant and toddler drowning in Australia.
They found that proper fencing could prevent three quarters of child drownings in pools. Despite this, the maximum penalty for non-compliant fencing is $500, and inspections are rare.
The review highlighted that no child drownings have occurred in Australian pools with compliant 4-sided fencing. Four-sided fencing completely isolates the pool, whereas 3-sided fencing uses the house as one side of the enclosure.
Three-sided fencing is less secure as children may access the pool through a window or an unlocked door. Despite the benefits, 4-sided fencing is required by legislation only in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
Compliant fencing must have a minimum height of 1.2 m above the external ground level, and a maximum of 10-cm gaps between vertical elements. There must be a minimum of 90-cm between horizontal elements so the fence can’t be used as a ladder.
The fence must also have a self-closing and self-latching gate. Finally, fencing installers should remind parents to never place a pot plant, couch, chair, storage box, or pump equipment near the outside of the fence that children could use to climb the fence. Full details are available in Australian Standard (AS 1926.1).
Fencing is one part of the solution but there are other things pool owners should be aware of. For example, there are medical factors that increase drowning risk – cardiac disorders and epilepsy can cause a sudden loss of consciousness, which can be fatal if the child is in the pool. There is also a higher drowning rate among young children with autism.
Active supervision requires attention, proximity, and continuity, but unfortunately, inadequate supervision is the most common factor in infant and toddler drowning. Other important areas are water safety education and basic life support (i.e. CPR) from bystanders. Basic life support increases child drowning survival rates by 30%, but alarmingly, only 30% of victims receive CPR. This is primarily due to bystanders lacking confidence in performing CPR.
The authors argue for fencing legislation changes that can save children’s lives. These include shifting all states and territories to 4-sided fencing, higher fines for pool owners with non-compliant fencing, and a requirement that all pool installation quotes include the price of fencing.
The authors suggest the government consider financial incentives to maximise fencing compliance for new pool construction, but perhaps most importantly, to encourage owners of existing pools to bring their fencing up to standard. Fencing saves children’s lives and should be a priority for government and pool owners.
This story was first published in The Fence magazine.