By Mario Vittone (Reproduced with permission)
The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the couple swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sand bar. “We’re fine, what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard. ”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not ten feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”
How did this captain know – from fifty feet away – what the father couldn’t recognize from just ten? Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew knows what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” she hadn’t made a sound. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn’t surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for, is rarely seen in real life.
The Instinctive Drowning Response – so named by Francesco A Pia, PhD, 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. 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:
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.
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.
(Source: On Scene magazine, Fall 2006, p. 14)
Drowning people cannot wave for help.
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:
So if a crew member falls overboard and everything looks 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 at the deck. 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. And parents – children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.
No matter what your age or your swimming skills, you can be made safer near and in the water. Learning to swim is vital, of course, but you must know how to prevent the risk of drowning even before you, and especially your children, know how to swim.
Alright then. First some statistics, followed by safety tips.
Every day, about ten people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, two are children aged 14 or younger. Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States. (http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars)
Among those children aged 1-14 years, fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death behind motor vehicle crashes. (http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars)
About one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger. Nearly 80% of people who die from drowning are male. (Laosee, OC, Gilchrist, J, Rudd, R. Drowning 2005-2009. MMWR 2012; 61(19):344-347.)
Children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates. In 2009, among children 1 to 4 years old who died from an unintentional injury, more than 30% died from drowning. (http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars) and (Laosee, OC, Gilchrist, J, Rudd, R. Drowning 2005-2009. MMWR 2012; 61(19):344-347.)
Here are additional accidental drowning statistics from the CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/water-safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Water-related Injuries fact sheet. (http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Water-Safety/index.html)
A recent study commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation and conducted by the University of Memphis found that nearly 70% of African American children and nearly 60% of Hispanic children have low or no swim ability, compared to 40% of Caucasians, putting them at risk for drowning. http://www.usaswimming.org/DesktopDefault.aspx?TabId=1796&Alias=Rainbow&Lang=en
Approximately 10 people drown every day in the United States. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC))
More than one in five fatal drowning victims are children younger than 14. (Source: CDC)
Drowning is also a silent killer—most young children who drowned in pools were last seen in the home, had been out of sight less than five minutes, and were in the care of one or both parents at the time. (Source: Present P. Child Drowning study)
Seventy percent of African-American and sixty percent of Hispanic/Latino children cannot swim. (Source: National research study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis)
Participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children aged one to four years. (Source: Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 2009)
African-American children drown at a rate nearly three times higher than their Caucasian peers. (Source: CDC)
If a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that a child in that household will learn how to swim. (Source: National research study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis)
Participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children aged one to four years.
Home swimming pools account for most drownings of children aged 1 to 4 years. Laosee, OC, Gilchrist, J, Rudd, R. Drowning 2005-2009. MMWR 2012; 61(19):344-347.)
Children who drown in residential pools had been:
How young children drown depends on their age.
Children younger than 1 year often drown in:
Children aged 1 to 4 are most likely to drown in home swimming pools.
Most drownings of those 15 years or older occur in lakes, rivers or the ocean.
Now for the positive part – drowning prevention.