Drowning is Preventable: What You Need to Know to Stay Safe This Summer

Take the right steps to stay safe in the water

Since January 2013, 27 children have died in Texas as the result of drowning. Many, if not all, of these deaths were preventable.

“Water safety” is an incredibly vast subject that becomes even more diverse when you add the type of water environment, water conditions, swimmer's ability, and similar factors. How, then, can drowning be preventable when so much must happen for an aquatic activity to be “safe”? More so, how can any aquatic activity be ANY fun when such dangers lurk among the depths?

First, some basic concepts:
  • After approximately the first nine months of human life, humans transition from water being our safe, natural environment to an alien, air-free, fatal place where we will certainly perish should we try to breathe
  • Humans can drown in less than six inches of water and with less than 3 milliliters of water in the lungs
  • Human physiology is designed to prevent foreign substances such as water from entering the body where it’s not supposed to
  • Water is inherently dangerous to humans when aspirated (inhaled
  • Drowning happens fast!
  • Given the opportunity to pay attention to more than one thing, humans (being human) sometimes pick the wrong one

Yep, once you exit the womb, your water-breathing days are over. One giant, unhappy gasp and suddenly you’re addicted to air…lots of it…constantly. Face it, when the air stops, you die.

Photo courtesy of www.firstfivecc.orgNow consider all of the great and beautiful aquatic places we have in Texas—our beaches, lakes, and rivers—even some cool pools and hot tubs. Add the sounds and actions of people having fun in them, and it’s really attractive.

A recipe for almost certain disaster, right? It doesn’t have to be.

One of the biggest reasons a person reaches the end of the five stages of the drowning process (and it really is a process, not a singular event) is that no intervention occurs during the first two stages when drowning is most preventable. Here they are:

Stage One—Surprise

 The person recognizes danger, becomes afraid, and assumes a near-vertical position in the water with little or no leg movement. The head will tilt back with the nose and mouth just out of the water and the hands will be at or near the surface of the water. It may appear that the person is trying to climb a ladder. Seldom does the person articulate a call for help—they’re struggling just to breathe.

Stage Two—Involuntary Breath Holding

 The victim’s nose and mouth now drop below the static water line. The body protects itself through involuntary breath holding because water has entered the mouth, and the epiglottis (that hangy-down thing on the back of your throat) closes over the airway to prevent water from entering. The victim may continue to struggle but will be unable to make any sound.

Stages three, four, and five are Unconsciousness, Hypoxic Convulsions (seizures because of lack of oxygen to the brain), and Clinical Death. All three require professionally trained intervention to revive the victim.

So let’s focus on what we can all do to prevent drowning during the first two stages and still enjoy our time around the water.

Two favorite and authoritative sources that promote water safety and drowning prevention are the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) and Colin’s Hope.

“The United States Lifesaving Association is America's nonprofit, professional association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers. USLA works to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means.”
Photo courtesy of www.etch.com

USLA offers a “top ten” list of tips for safety at the beach, lake, or river:
  1. Learn To Swim: Learning to swim is the best defense against drowning. Teach children to swim at an early age. Children who are not taught when they are very young tend to avoid swim instruction as they age, probably due to embarrassment. Swimming instruction is a crucial step to protecting children from injury or death.
  2. Always Swim Near a Lifeguard: USLA statistics over a ten-year period show that the chance of drowning at a beach without lifeguard protection is almost five times as great as drowning at a beach with lifeguards. USLA has calculated the chance that a person will drown while attending a beach protected by USLA affiliated lifeguards at 1 in 18 million (.0000055%).
  3. Swim with a Buddy: Many drownings involve single swimmers. When you swim with a buddy, if one of you has a problem, the other may be able to help, including signaling for assistance from others. At least have someone onshore watching you.
  4. Check with lifeguards about beach conditions and other conditions.
  5. Use Sunscreen and Drink Water.
  6. Obey Posted Signs and Flags.
  7. Keep the Beach and Water Clean.
  8. Learn Rip Current Safety: USLA has found that some 80% of rescues by USLA-affiliated lifeguards at ocean beaches are caused by rip currents. These currents are formed by surf and gravity, because once surf pushes water up the slope of the beach, gravity pulls it back. This can create concentrated rivers of water moving offshore. Some people mistakenly call this an undertow, but there is no undercurrent, just an offshore current. If you are caught in a rip current, don't fight it by trying to swim directly to shore. Instead, swim parallel to shore until you feel the current relax, then swim to shore. Most rip currents are narrow, and a short swim parallel to shore will bring you to safety.
  9. Enter Water Feet First: Serious, lifelong injuries, including paraplegia, occur every year due to diving headfirst into unknown water and striking the bottom. Bodysurfing can result in a serious neck injury when the swimmer's neck strikes the bottom. Check for depth and obstructions before diving, then go in feet first the first time; use caution while bodysurfing, always extending a hand ahead of you.
  10. Wear a Life Jacket: Some 80% of fatalities associated with boating accidents are from drowning. Most involve people who never expected to end up in the water, but fell overboard or ended up in the water when the boat sank. Children are particularly susceptible to this problem and, in many states, children are required to be in life jackets whenever they are aboard boats.

The mission of Colin’s Hope is to raise water safety awareness to prevent children from drowning. The organization is named to commemorate and remember 4-year-old Colin Holst, who drowned at a lifeguarded pool in Austin, Texas. His story can be found here.

Colin’s Hope promotes “Layers of Protection” that include:

  1. CONSTANT visual supervision;
  2. Learn to swim;
  3. Wear life jackets;
  4. Multiple barriers on all pools and hot tubs;
  5. Keep back yards and bathrooms safe;
  6. Check pools and hot tubs FIRST for missing children; and
  7. Learn CPR.

Of these layers of protection, “constant (and informed) visual supervision” is paramount.

Photo courtesy of slate.comRemember one of the concepts first discussed:  “Given the opportunity to pay attention to more than one thing, humans (being human) sometimes pick the wrong one.” Reading a book or sending a text is not constant visual supervision, nor is engaging the friend next to you in a spirited conversation.

Make a commitment to being constantly watchful and aware when you’re in aquatic environments. Scan both the top of the water, within the water, and the bottom if you can. Keep your eyes and head moving.

If others are in the water around you look for and recognize these signs of drowning:

  • Body near-vertical 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
  • 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

NEVER be afraid to ask someone in the water, “Are you o.k.?” Then be prepared to call for help, reach, throw, or row—but don’t go unless you’re trained.

Finally, here is a piece I wrote a couple of months ago. It’s about a dream from which I awoke early one morning, and it was so vivid and real that I wrote it down to share with others. In every case, the characters appearing in the dream were from real-life experiences and managed to coalesce into a single episode. In every case, each would be alive today had someone been paying attention to the people in the water.

Lifeguard Dream

3 a.m. – Tuesday, April 30, 2013:

I stood at the edge looking out at the placid sheen of the water’s surface… peaceful, serene and inviting.

As I gazed into the depths I saw a hazy shape, a figure--no, figures.

Focusing now on my new perspective, I could make out their dark outlines far below the surface.

They’d been there a while and looked comfortable in their new environment. No longer was there panic on their faces, their last gasps long expired, almost peaceful, yet so unnecessary.

These were my ghosts… my sirens… my specters of the deep. The souls needlessly lost in a watery environment that could have been their friend for life.

Colin was there. I wasn’t at the pool the day we lost him but I’ve championed his cause and his Hope to keep other kids from drowning.

The little girl at the pool when I was five who flipped upside-down in an inflatable ring when anyone could have righted her…and continued her life.

The 26-year-old who drowned last year on Lake Travis with family and friends within arm’s reach of him but nobody noticed that he was floating face down in the water for over 20 minutes. We worked on him for 45 minutes, and even the StarFlight miracle workers couldn’t get him to come back.

The 17-year-old kid who wanted to surf but didn’t swim that well who got caught in a rip current and panicked. He was swimming far from the lifeguard coverage because he wanted to be good at surfing before he tried it in front of people. We found him a day later near the jetty.

Countless others who now shared their company joined them…

My peace was long gone…my breath and pulse were rapid… I began scanning and searching for anyone above the water but could find no one. Only the lost souls now committed to the deep.

Then I awoke--recommitted to be ever watchful, ready, and capable to respond to prevent another from joining their company.

It was a dream, yes. Nevertheless, every character in it was real and every one of them would be alive today had someone been watching.

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