Swim Season Safety: Know What A Drowning Person Really Looks Like

Posted on May 30, 2014


More than half of Americans cannot swim adequately, and most of us can’t recognize a drowning person right in front of us.

Ah, yes. The pools and beaches are open again.

For the past couple of seasons around this time of year, I have vainly attempted to educate the public about the horrors of the swim diaper, which does very little to keep fecal matter safely separated from swimming water. This season, let’s look at another safety issue: drowning. It’s not as obvious as one might think.

Back when Lila was a young pup wanting to swim on her own in the military-base pool, she had to pass the Red Cross swim test and display the “B Badge” on her swimsuit. The Red Cross lists five skills that everyone must have to be considered reasonably safe in the water:

These critical water safety skills, also known as “water competency,” are the ability to: step or jump into the water over your head; return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute; turn around in a full circle and find an exit; swim 25 yards to the exit; and exit from the water. If in a pool, you must be able to exit without using the ladder.

But fewer than half of all Americans can do all that. I’ve been hearing lots of scary statistics bandied about. Check out the Red Cross survey:

– Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children, and the sixth-leading cause for people of all ages.

– 92% of parents report that their children will probably have water activities this summer, but only 40% of parents report that their children have all five basic swimming skills, and only 20% of children are likely to take swimming lessons this summer.

– 80% of Americans are planning water activities this summer, but only 54% have the five basic swimming skills.

– Similarly, 80% of Americans claim they “can swim,” but of that group, only 56% say they have all five swimming skills.

– 32% of Americans are planning water activities where there is no lifeguard.

Bottom line, it seems that an awful lot of non-swimmers think they can swim and go swimming every summer, including where there is no lifeguard. That’s why it is so important for everyone to recognize what drowning really looks like and sounds like.

Mario Vittone writes in Slate magazine: “Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event.” A person who is yelling and thrashing may be in real trouble, but he is able to assist in his own rescue: he can call for help, he can reach for a lifeline. A drowning person cannot do any of this. During the Instinctive Drowning Response, unlearned and largely involuntary response movements kick in: the body hangs vertical in the water, the head is back and looking upward, the mouth rises above and sinks below the water’s surface just enough to take a breath but not enough to call out. The arms are out to the side, trying to press downward on the water. There is very little splashing. At this point, the victim is only seconds from going under.

You can see a real case of this recorded by a lifeguard on a Bronx beach. The victim was rescued successfully. Please watch… it might save someone’s life this summer.