Last year I was flipping through radio stations and came upon an interview with a master lifeguard. I was riveted by him in a queasy, frightened sort of way as he discussed his decades guarding NY swim spots. His number one concern is that few people know the actual signs of drowning: they in no way resemble what you see portrayed in movies and on TV, where swimmers are shown flailing their arms and shouting for help. I was reminded of this interview a few days ago while reading “Respect for Water cuts risk of Drowning” by Jane Brody in her excellent NY Times “Personal Health” blog, in which she reviews commonsense water safety precautions such as never swimming alone, obeying all safety signs and warnings, entering unknown water feet first in a shallow area, and knowing when to use a life jacket. How do you tell when someone is struggling and needs rescue, though? Read on.
Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading authority on aquatic rescue, injuries, and drowning, has described what he calls the “Instinctive Drowning Response.” I’m going to quote him at length.
- Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. Th e 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.
- 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.
As Mario Vittone, a leading maritime safety expert, observes, however, Pia’s rubric is not meant to suggest that someone flailing their arms and calling out does not need rescue:
“This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble – they are experience 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 there own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.
Look for these other signs of drowning when persons are n 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.”
The main takeaway from these safety experts? We need to better educate ourselves and our friends and loved ones about practicing water safety, as well as knowing when it’s time to help.