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What's the deal with no lifeguards on cruise ships?

 

Just a minute!

How many times have you said that to your kids -- on vacation at a pool or a beach while you finish a call, rummage for the sunscreen or turn around to grab a beach towel?

Most times, thankfully, that minute means nothing. But for some, a few seconds of inattention around water can mean the difference between life and death. As many of us head off to warm climes and cruise ships on spring break, it's especially important to be mindful of water safety, particularly if young kids are along for the trip.

NO LIFEGUARDS?

Last month, a 4-year-old boy drowned aboard the Norwegian Breakaway, and his 6-year-old brother was seriously injured. Last fall, a Florida 6-year-old drowned aboard a Carnival cruise ship -- just a few months after a Minnesota 4-year-old was left brain damaged after a near drowning aboard a Disney ship.

Where were the lifeguards? You might be surprised to learn that on cruise ships -- even those that typically carry 1,000 kids or more at a time -- there most likely won't be lifeguards. That may be true at resorts, too.

"Even if there is a lifeguard, parents are the first layer of supervision," notes Roy Fielding, a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council, which oversees water safety initiatives. Parents need to be 100 percent attentive and within arm's length, "not reading a book or on their phone."

Fielding advises that kids should be taught to swim as early as possible and that young kids wear Coast Guard-approved life jackets when they're near water that is over their heads. Inflatable floaties just won't cut it. (For more American Red Cross water safety tips, visit redcross.org/watersafety)

FLOATING AMUSEMENT PARKS

Be forewarned the next time you check into a resort that laws vary from state to state on whether lifeguards are required. There are no U.S. laws that apply to cruise lines regarding the issue of swimming pools, notes James Walker, the attorney and creator of cruiselaw.com. This despite the fact that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, death by drowning among children 1 to 4 accounts for more deaths than any other cause except birth defects.

"In my view, cruise ships should have lifeguards for the same reason you would expect lifeguards at a water park," said B. Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association. "Cruise ships are essentially floating amusement parks, and they should be providing reasonable protections with respect to the attractions they offer."

Disney Cruise Line has now added lifeguards at all of its family pools and at Castaway Cay, its private island, a spokesman said. Also, complimentary pool vests are now available on its pool decks to help children with flotation, though the cruise line stresses they are not a substitute for life jackets or adult supervision. Walt Disney World also has made pool hours at its resort family pools consistent with lifeguard hours.

Not so on other cruise lines -- thus far. Carnival, which carries 700,000 children a year, the most in the industry, has no lifeguards, a spokesman said, noting, "The maximum depth of the pool is 4 feet, 6 inches, and parental supervision is required for children under 13."

SHALLOW WATER WARNING

The American Red Cross' Fielding notes that children can drown in just a few inches of water.

Princess Cruises doesn't have lifeguards onboard its ships. Neither does Norwegian.

"As with many land-based hotels and resorts with swimming pools, we have highly visible signage to alert guests to the fact that a lifeguard is not on duty," says Norwegian spokeswoman AnneMarie Mathews. "At the pools, we also require that children under 12 are accompanied by an adult at all times."

But there's supervision -- and there's supervision. "Unlike many injuries and other tragedies, a child going under the water happens without noise and can certainly occur without notice," said Dr. Kyran Quinlan, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury. He added, "Until children are excellent swimmers, parents would be wise to serve as their children's lifeguard in settings like hotel pools or cruise ships."

To that goal, Safe Kids Worldwide (safekids.org/worldwide) suggests one adult at a time should be the designated "Water Watcher" for a set amount of time -- say 15 minutes -- so you know someone's eyes are always on the kids.

AMERICAN RED CROSS WATER SAFETY TIPS

* Teach kids to always ask permission to go near the water; never leave them unattended.

* Avoid distractions when supervising children around the water. Alcohol and water don't mix.

* Insist that older kids always swim with a buddy.

* Learn CPR. Local hospitals, fire departments and recreation departments offer CPR training.

Eileen Ogintz is a nationally syndicated columnist and creator of TakingtheKids.com. Her new  Kids Guide to Boston is available online and from major booksellers, along with the Kids Guides to NYC, Washington, DC, Orlando,  LA and Chicago. Coming  later this year: San Diego, San Francisco and Denver.