By Katina Caraganis
The American Red Cross is encouraging people looking to go swimming at public beaches, in lakes or pools to take the necessary precautions to stay safe during the hot summer months.
Water safety is on everyone's mind after medical personnel were called to the shores of Hickory Hills Lake in Lunenburg Friday afternoon for an accidental drowning.
The victim was Heather Duval, 35, of Lunenburg. She was officially identified Saturday afternoon by the District Attorney's Office.
Crews were called to the area of 212 Townsend Harbor Road about 2:15 p.m. after officers received information about a missing woman. Duval was pulled unresponsive from the lake, and CPR was performed on her in an ambulance before being taken to HealthAlliance Hospital in Leominster.
There have been other fatal swimming accidents in recent weeks, including two people drowning in New Hampshire, including a 3-year-old girl.
Members of the New Hampshire State Police Marine Patrol were dispatched to a home on Sunapee's Perkins Pond last week for a report of a possible drowning, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.
According to officers, the young girl was playing outside with her family when her mother realized she was missing. She was found about 10 feet from the shoreline.
A 30-year-old man drowned in the Saco River in Maine last week after jumping from a railroad trestle.
Last weekend, two people drowned after getting caught in strong currents in the Merrimack River and getting pulled downstream. A third victim died while swimming in a pond in Newton.
Dawn Leaks, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said the key is to not swim alone.
"We encourage people to go out with a buddy," she said. "If you have young children or inexperienced swimmers, you want to make sure they're wearing U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets in and around the water. We encourage people to swim in approved swimming areas, which can be difficult."
The Red Cross recently conducted a survey asked people if they would be swimming this summer, where they would be swimming, and if they would be going in large groups, or alone.
"We found over 60 percent of people who answered the survey said they were planning to swim somewhere where there is no lifeguard on duty," Leaks said.
The Red Cross has a first-aid app for smartphones that has preparedness information and checklists to look at before going swimming, she said.
Fitchburg Fire Deputy Chief Kevin Curran said Monday that while the department has not been out to many calls in recent history for incidents in the water, there are precautions people can take to ensure their safety.
"First of all, people have to use their smarts. Swimming alone is something that shouldn't happen. It's a potentially dangerous situation," he said. "Always swim with a buddy if you can. It's almost ridiculous to have to preach this but alcohol and water never go together. Many swimming tragedies have a common denominator, which is alcohol."
He said that by going swimming with at least one other person, that other person is there to help anyone in trouble and fire personnel do not have to be called.
"Usually, our biggest thing is when someone has backyard pools and they think the gate is locked and an infant or someone who can't swim gets through the gate and they wind up in the pool," he said.
The biggest piece of advice he can give anyone, he said, is to take swimming lessons.
"I think it's never too early and you can never undermine this. People should take responsibility for themselves and learn how to swim," he said.
Swimming lessons are offered at Fitchburg State University, the YMCA, Orchard Hill and other places.
"It's kind of a rite of passage. If you live in New England and you're around water four months out of the year, you should learn how to swim," he said.
Lunenburg Police Chief Jim Marino echoed the same points.
"Don't go alone. That's not a good idea with anyone, even if you're an accomplished swimmer. Anything can happen," he said. "Obviously, we discourage any use of alcohol for adults while swimming. Try to swim at public beaches if possible too."
Follow Katina Caraganis on Twitter @kcaraganis.