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Water safety: How to identify swimmers in trouble

Member Services
September 12, 2014
Categories: Safety, Health, Travel Tips

Water-based activities provide endless opportunities to have fun in a safe, enjoyable, and healthy manner. However, the danger of drowning or near drowning is never far away. While enjoying the aquatic environment, it is important to educate ourselves and others about potential risks, as well as to maintain awareness of our surroundings; education and vigilance can change a potential tragedy into a mere “scary event.”

Take a moment to view the video above, an actual rescue of a drowning child. Can you spot the child in trouble before the lifeguard does? This video is a great reminder that drowning doesn’t look like drowning.  Notice how many people are within 15 feet of the victim.  None of these people had a clue that the child was at risk of drowning.

Most people get their mental image of drowning from the movies:  a victim who thrashes about, screaming for help and waving frantically at bystanders. A distressed swimmer may do this briefly prior to actually beginning the drowning process (it is known as “aquatic distress”); however, once the swimmer enters the Instinctive Drowning Response, it may be very difficult to tell that he or she is in trouble.

Keep the following facts in mind to better identify swimmers in trouble(Source: The Journal of the U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue):

  • Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.
  • The mouths of drowning people alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When their mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  • Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  • Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  • From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response, people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Look for these signs of drowning when people are in the water:

  • --Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • --Head tilted back with mouth open
  • --Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • --  Eyes closed
  • --Hair over forehead or eyes
  • --Not using legs—vertical
  • --Hyperventilating or gasping
  • --Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • --Trying to roll over on the back
  • --Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

We encourage everyone to adhere to basic safety practices while on the water. Wear life vests if you are in a boat, even if it is hot. If you don’t like the clunky vests because they are uncomfortable, spring for a paddle sports vest. They are much more comfortable, and can be worn all day without a problem. If you see someone drowning, call for help or alert the lifeguard. Remember:Reach, Throw, Row, Don’t Go!

  1. Reach – Reach out to the victim with an arm while holding on to the dock, boat. Reach out with a pole, stick, float, etc.
  2. Throw – If you can’t reach them, throw a life ring/ throw rope/ life jacket, etc. to the victim.
  3. Row – If you have a watercraft and are proficient enough to use it, use that to reach the victim. Mind the propellers.
  4. Don’t Go – Unless you are trained in water rescue, do not swim out to rescue the victim. Even a small child can easily drown an adult if the adult is not trained. Call for help and look for other options. (It may be naïve to believe that this warning will keep a parent from attempting to rescue their child. So, if you must go, go with support. Find a float, life ring, etc., and use that for support. Be careful.)

 


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