The bad news is drowning can happen anywhere, including one’s personal swimming pool. Good news is that help is nearby more often than not, and all it takes is just to recognise a person in trouble.
Recognising an emergency
In an aquatic emergency, survival depends on a quick response. A drowning person goes through two stages: aquatic distress and actual drowning.
A swimmer in distress realises that his life is under threat, and as he is capable of intentional actions, he shouts, splashes, tries to attract attention or grab a lifesaving device.
“They look frightened. They splash, shout, try to swim, but stay still for a long time (cannot swim to shore),” says Phuket Lifeguard Club President Prathaiyuth Chuayuan.
Don’t think that the person is just playing or fooling you. The distress stage doesn’t last long, and if not helped a swimmer in distress will soon become a drowning victim. The second stage presupposes loss of conscious behaviour: all actions are uncontrolled and instinctive.
Thus real drowning – unlike distress – is silent and fast. It takes from 20 to 60 seconds and doesn’t look like a struggle at all due to what experts call Instinctive Drowning Response (IDR).
This is how IDR was described by Aviation Survival Technician First Class Mario Vittone and Francesco A. Pia Ph.D. for On Scene, The Journal of U. S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue:
1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are silent. They are physiologically unable to call out for help.
2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. This time is enough only to exhale and inhale quickly before submerging again.
3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water for one breath.
4. Drowning people cannot control their arm movements and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving or grabbing a lifesaving device.
5. Drowning people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick.
In cases of both aquatic distress and drowning, the best way to find out if everything is okay is asking. If the person cannot answer it is time to react – and do it swiftly.
Responding to an emergency
In an aquatic emergency, every second counts. The first step is alerting surrounding people. Shout for help, call for the lifeguards (if present), wave your hands – informing goes before any actions and the more people alerted, the better.
“Lifeguards will go to help as fast as they can by means of surfboard, jet-ski or just swimming,” assures Prathaiyuth.
Lifeguards are professionally trained to respond to emergencies, but around you there can be other people with relevant skills, such as divers, surfers, rescue volunteers. Even if you have undertaken some water-safety training in the past, don’t rush to help without informing others about what you are doing.
Always carefully consider the whole situation before going into the water yourself. If you are unable to swim, find a lifeline or any improvised lifesaving device that you can throw to the person and call 1669. Remember that a person can be brought back to life even after some 5-10 minutes under water.
And if you haven’t done so yet, enroll in water safety, first aid and CPR courses to learn what to do.
If you are in danger
If you find yourself in threat while swimming, try to calm down and suppress panic. Rescue will come and your main objective is to call for help and live to see it. Stay calm, don’t panic.
To increase your buoyancy, inhale as much as you can and slowly exhale. This will help you float and at the same time calm you down.
Then try to attract attention by raising one hand and waving it. Don’t try to shout for help before you are stable in the water, as this can result in you inhaling water.
Try to search for floating objects that can serve as improvised lifesaving devices and reach for them.
If you are caught in a rip, don’t try to swim against it. Swim parallel to the shore, as this the easiest way to get out of the rip.
And always remember that prevention of emergency is the best form of survival. Swim only in the designated areas, don’t go into the water where red flags and signs prohibiting swimming are posted.
“Please observe the area before you go swimming. Remember, red flags mean ‘No swimming’. Swim only in the safe areas designated by lifeguards and try to stay close to them, because they are the people to react if you need help,” says Prathaiyuth.