scorecardresearch Skip to main content

To combat drownings, state earmarks $475,000 in new funding for swim lessons, safety messages

A child holds her breath underwater while participating in a swimming class in this 2014 file photo.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A new state initiative announced Thursday aims to make swimming lessons more accessible to underserved communities and increase safety messaging at designated waterfronts, as officials work to combat a surge in drownings that has claimed dozens of victims this summer.

The Safe Water Initiative Massachusetts earmarks $475,000 for private organizations and nonprofits to provide free beginner swimming lessons to people of any age, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said in a statement.

Organizations that are swimming instructor certified, either by the Red Cross or an industry equivalent, can apply to receive a contract from the state to provide the lessons. The program will prioritize organizations in low-income communities.


“The Commonwealth is fortunate to have beautiful waterfronts and great places for residents to cool off and have fun, but too often we have seen tragic incidents at these locations,” Governor Charlie Baker said in the statement. “Our administration is committed to expanding access to swim lessons and providing residents in underserved communities an opportunity to develop this important skill to help prevent tragic accidents in and around the water.”

The Department of Conservation and Recreation already sponsors a “Learn to Swim” program, and in July, some participating pools said they had received an influx of inquiries.cq

Announced Thursday amid sweltering heat like many days this summer that have driven residents to the water in droves, the initiative is the state’s latest effort to combat frightening number of drownings.

There were 18 drowning deaths across the state in May, more than the past three Mays combined. In June and July, swimming fatalities continued to rise. Lifeguards were not present at most of those drownings, a Globe review in July found, though in one notable case, a 19-year-old drowned in Pleasure Bay off South Boston with lifeguards present.


Just Wednesday, an 8-year-old boy was rescued by a lifeguard after he went underwater at a state-run pool in Hyde Park.

The drownings have not occurred equitably across the population. The Globe review found that nearly 60 percent of people that had drowned or nearly died were people of color.

As part of the new initiative, workers will install multilingual safety signs at all state-designated beaches and waterfronts and station life rings at 78 waterfronts across the state.

Life rings are buoyant rings attached to a rope that can be thrown to struggling swimmers. They’re an “important tool for visitors to use if they see someone in danger while discouraging risky rescue attempts that can endanger additional lives,” the statement said.

A new public awareness campaign will also broadcast water safety tips on social media.

Andrew Brinker can be reached at Follow him @andrewnbrinker.