On Memorial Day weekend, thousands across Connecticut and New York will head to beaches, pools and other swimming holes to celebrate the opening summer holiday with a splash.
For many families, this is a tradition as customary as attending the Memorial Day parade to honor the sacrifices of American veterans.
Yet with such revelry comes a need for responsibility -- so frolicking in the water doesn't lead to a fright, or worse, a fatality.
New Fairfield First Selectman John Hodge readily admits there were a few years when he dreaded this and other summer holidays, because all too often they included news of a drowning at Squantz Pond.
Elected to office in 2005, Hodge proved a champion for stepped-up water safety efforts at the state park off Route 39 in New Fairfield, where three people drowned in 2007. Each of the tragedies occurred outside the marked swimming area.
Squantz Pond is a popular section of Candlewood Lake. It includes a restricted swimming area surrounded by a trail that leads to a rock outcropping. Many a young adventurer has opted to jump into the deep lake from trees and rocks there. At 30 to 40 feet deep, the pond in the area known as "The Rocks" can prove treacherous.
"Whenever you put people and water together, the fat is always in the fire," Hodge said.
At the urging of Hodge, state lawmakers and concerned citizens, Squantz Pond has garnered significant state resources -- some $750,000 -- to provide parking enforcement, water patrols, "No Trespassing" signs, and patrol rangers. These additions have greatly enhanced the safety of the park for all, including many out-of-state and out-of-town guests who like to frequent it. A picturesque spot, it's near enough to Interstate 84 to be a major summer recreational attraction.
Hodge notes the state opted to "come to the party" when town leaders threatened a lawsuit to make them operate Squantz Pond properly because their own volunteer emergency responders were constantly placed in danger due to problems there.
In July 2007, the DEP made the area known as "The Rocks" off limits, posting large warning signs in English and Spanish. The state police also started to enforce parking limits, reducing capacity from 500 vehicles to 250, and alerting people from I-84 when the park is full. A year later, the DEP added even more improvements, including taking down trees to enlarge the swimming area and improve sight lines for lifeguards.
From 2009 to this year, Hodge said the DEP committed three special conservation officers to law enforcement at the park for days and evenings, with one full-time environmental conservation officer on the weekends.
In addition, the state has committed to doing routine water patrols to prevent people from entering restricted areas. When on duty, the boat patrols can be called to the area within 90 to 120 seconds, he said.
All of these precautions are in addition to the standard park rangers on foot patrol and surveillance by a crew of at least 16 lifeguards, he said.
"Squantz has been pretty quiet in the past couple years," Hodge said, noting a drowning last year was the result of a medical condition and "bad luck."
American Red Cross aquatics specialist Jack Harder is quite familiar with Squantz Pond, as his family once owned much of that land. For the last 16 years, he has been in charge of water safety and aquatics in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
With water safety, Harder said there are two key issues: Supervision and common sense. Children under the age of 4 need to be supervised around any water, including bathtubs and toilets, because they can "get in trouble pretty quick."
With older adolescents and young adults, often males, the risk of drowning is often elevated because they take unnecessary risks and swim in places they don't belong, such as "The Rocks."
"What it comes down to is common sense," Harder said, noting even good swimmers should never be in a body of water alone, because if an emergency arises a person who is submerged can drown in less than five minutes.
"If you don't think you should be there, or you have to cross several `No Trespassing' signs to get there, you really need to think to yourself, `Is this a good place to be?' "
"If people swim in the designated swimming areas, and are not jumping off a causeway, we can eliminate a lot of issues," he said.
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