SOUTH SALT LAKE Skinned knees and the occasional bruise are an unfortunate but normal part of childhood, says emergency physician Charles Pruitt, but serious injuries that cause bleeding on the brain and spinal cord damage also are occurring all too often on Utah's public playgrounds.
The traumatic falls, cuts and burns that require overnight hospital stays happen here at the same rate they happen in the rest of the nation, according to statistics gathered by the trauma center at Primary Children's Medical Center.
Pruitt and a group of community partners have taken notice and are banding together to keep children out of harm's way in one historically problematic park.
"We have a very pleasant environment here in Utah. Our parks are usually well-kept," said Pruitt, who heads the Salt Lake chapter of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids, based at the children's hospital. "But we did some background research and found it was no better here than in other parts of the country."
By November, the Robert Fitts Park at 3050 S. 500 East will feature about $150,000 in safety improvements, including rubber tiles instead of sand, an 8-foot climbing wall and improved lighting and fencing. Playground equipment that is almost a decade old also will be repaired and painted, if necessary, and a dangerous fire station climbing apparatus will be removed.
The donor group, which also includes Operation Kids, hopes to deter crime and graffiti at the park. Now, almost every slide and structure in the large neighborhood park is tagged with gang signs and violent phrases. Beer cans litter the thistle-covered grass in one corner, and old volleyball courts and wooden exercise machines sit unused and dilapidated.
But the park is also beautiful, and a wildlife haven. Dozens of ducks and fish and even a turtle swim in the two deep canals that border the park, and numerous full-size trees provide shade.
"Upkeep really makes a difference," said Rushelle Bringhurst, whose sons were playing on the rickety red fire station toy Tuesday morning. "It's about getting the right type of people here, and that will make it safer."
The city of South Salt Lake agrees with Bringhurst. Making the park more family friendly will deter the criminal element, said Tim Williams, public works director. South Salt Lake will contribute about half the needed money to refurbish the park. It also will provide in-kind labor donations and plans to continue maintenance in the area.
Making playgrounds safer will not only help kids, but also will reduce health care and insurance costs for everyone, Pruitt said.
In Utah in 2004, 27 percent of injuries in elementary school students occurred on playgrounds, according to the Utah Department of Health. A total of 4,703 were injured badly enough to need medical treatment, and 74 were hospitalized.
Three-quarters of those injuries were from falls, according to the department.
When finished, Fitts Park will feature a playground for small children and another for school-age children. The two play areas, separated by a large plastic dragon, will have clean lines of sight from nearby benches. The entire playground and some of the equipment will be accessible for children in wheelchairs.
The whole complex, to be built on a hill, will be surrounded by a U-shaped fence that will keep children away from the canals.
"We're trying to sort of empower parents," Pruitt said. "We want to make it easier for them to supervise their children."
Always supervise children on playgrounds.
Do not allow children using playgrounds to wear bicycle helmets, which can cause strangulation.
Check the temperature of all playground equipment; even plastic can get very hot.
Tour parks with children and point out dangerous areas.
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