08 June 2013


After training and certification, I spent the summer of 1985 as a lifeguard at the swimming pool at Christopher City, the University of Arizona's family housing complex.  The pool was small but busy, since many children lived in the complex.  (Residents had to be UA students, and had to be either married or single with children.)  It was a great place to be a student and parent, because any child had lots of potential playmates ~ many from foreign countries ~ and parents watched out for each other's kids.

(Note ~ in researching this post, I learned that Christopher City was demolished over ten years ago, and the land sold to a housing contractor for "development".  No doubt the move generated a profit for the university, but in my eyes the failure to rebuild the single-story apartment complex was a grave disservice to students who are married and/or parents.)

Sitting up in the tall lifeguard's chair was wonderful, wearing polarizing dark glasses to better see beneath the water's surface, with a whistle on a yellow lanyard around my neck.  The opportunity to discreetly glance at attractive, bikini-clad mothers was a perk not mentioned in training.

But most of my time and energy were spent scanning ~ watching children at poolside with frequent warnings to "Walk, don't run", and watching several dozen children in the water for signs of either too-rough water play, or signs of distress.  We'd learned and practiced the protocol for responding to an apparently-drowning person, and mentally rehearsed responses constantly.

I was reminded of those hot, sunny poolside days by an article in Slate by a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Mario Vittone.  In it, the author dispels myths about the visible signs of a person who is drowning, and explains what to actually look for.  To summarize ~

"The Instinctive Drowning Response [IDR]~ so named by Franceso 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 .... Drowning does not look like drowning.  Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guards 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.
  2. 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 to exhale, inhale, and call out for help.
  3. Drowning people cannot wave for help.  Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water's surface.
  4. Throughout the IDR, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their own movements.
  5. From beginning to end of the IDR 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.
"This doesn't mean that a person who is yelling for help and thrashing isn't in real trouble ~ they are experiencing aquatic distress.  Not always present before the IDR, 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
  • Appearing to be climbing an invisible ladder
"So if a [person] 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.  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."

Here is a video demonstrating the Instinctive Drowning Response.

As the Slate piece reminds us in its title, drowning doesn't look like drowning.  In many child drownings, adults are nearby but have no idea the victim is dying.  Now you know what to look for.

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