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How To Know If Someone Is Drowning
Greg - 7/23/2010 3:53 PM
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Category: Educational
Comments: 10
How To Know If Someone Is DrowningThe lifeguard moving quickly past Lindsey’s chair seemed to come out of nowhere. Four steps later he was in the air, jumping right in the middle of where her children were playing. Before she could get to her feet the teenaged guard had her 10 year-old pressed up above the surface and was baking up to the pool edge. Someone was screaming her child’s name and the young boy started crying. Her little boy had been drowning right in front of her and she didn’t have any idea it was happening. It wasn’t until the guard let him go and he ran, dripping wet, into her arms that Lindsey realized that she was the one screaming...

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like What You’d Expect

What did the guard see that this mother didn’t? Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The lifeguard was trained to recognize drowning by experts and experience. Lindsey, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If your going to have your kids near the water, then you should make sure that you know what to look for whether around lifeguards or not. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, stories like Lindsey’s don’t surprise me, and I hear them all the time. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for, are rarely seen in real life.

Drowning is the #2 Cause of Accidental Death

The Instinctive Drowning Response – so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the number two cause of accidental death in children, age 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents) – of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In ten percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening (source: CDC).

The Instinctive Drowning Response

Drowning does not look like drowning – Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene Magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:

1. 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.
Drowning people’s mouths 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 the drowning people’s 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.
4. 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.

Signs of Drowning

This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble – they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the instinctive drowning response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long – but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc. Look for these other signs of drowning when persons 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
• Ladder climb, rarely out of the water

How to Save Your Kids

So if your children are playing in the water and everything sounds OK – don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking up. One way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you alright?” If they can answer at all – they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. Remember – children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.


BigDaddyDave - 8/02/2011 1:51 PM
great info that I did’’nt know
diverdown53 - 5/11/2011 9:54 AM
Water is nothing to fool with. My Father drowned in Florida in 1990 while swimming this side of the wave breaks. He was pulled out and under by the rip tides 100 yards. Two para-medics that were on the beach went to his rescue, but he was gone by the time they got to him. Shows how quickly someone can drown. He was a strong swimmer and swam all his life.

Enjoy the water, but don’t underestimate its power!!!

Thanks for posting this story!!!

treasurediver2010 - 1/28/2011 7:16 PM
an excellent article ,we can all learn from
halfjacket - 10/09/2010 6:45 PM
Greg, it reminds me of the incident that happened at Trashfest this year. Very scary stuff and you never know when you may have to react to a drowning. And of course you never know how you will react. The more you train, the better chances you have at reacting positively and save someone. Good article.
Dolphingirl - 10/03/2010 6:18 AM
What a good article! I almost watched a young boy drown this past summer at a party. A lot of adults were around watching the children play in the shallow pool. I think his mother over compensated with all the float’s.He was wearing a floating swim suit and the arm bands. He had on sooooooo much flotation that the buoyancy pushed him forward and his face was in the water. I told my husband to look and he instantly jumped in the pool to save the little boy. He is a rescue diver and I am so blessed to have him as my number 1 dive buddy for life.
Argonaut - 8/23/2010 1:17 PM
Thanks for posting this! It reminds me of an incident with my daughter years ago when she was only two years old. We were at a swimming pool with friends. I was sitting in a poolside chair chatting while the kids played in the shallow end. My daughter had just come over to me for some reason and then walked away. Moments later I scanned the pool to check on her. Much to my surprise I spotted her in the deep end a couple of feet from the edge of the pool, she was 6 inches underwater, eyes open, paddling unsuccessfully to get to the surface. She had been pushed in by another child who thought it was a funny thing to do. She had never made a sound to alarm me. I had her out of the water in seconds and she was fine but I shudder to think what if another 30 seconds had passed before I looked for her.
WarmWaterTurner - 8/20/2010 2:33 PM
Thanks for a "reprint" of this article. It is an amazing study and very, very helpful. I could never figure out how someone could miss a drowning child in a pool full of people but actually it is very easy. Everyone who even contemplates going near the water should be aware of it.
Muse - 8/17/2010 10:57 AM
Before my conscious mind could even think about what was happening I was in the water, fully clothed, and swimming towards the victim. By the time I had pulled him to the side of the pool all the lifeguards were on their feet, blowing whistles to clear the water.

What amazed me is that somehow my brain had processed the first event, then reacted to the second event without conscious thought. Perhaps there is an ’official’ term for this, but I just call it ’disaster-proofing’. I play out scenarios in the water when I’m diving (and in the car, on airplanes, etc...) - what would I do if such-and-such happened? What process would I go through to remain calm and solve the situation? What actions should I take and in what order? I sure hope I never have to find out!
Jen_Jen - 7/28/2010 9:42 AM
That is the other misunderstanding about drowning, that only non-swimmers drown. Not true.
VicFLA - 7/26/2010 8:54 AM
Thank you - even with all my dive training, i did not know this. Maybe perhaps because a panicked scuba diver is more obvious, and it assumed that the person can initially swim (from OW certification).