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Drowning Safety Tips

You're on the beach and you see someone in the water yelling for help and violently thrashing around - are they drowning? Most people would think so but it is closer to aquatic distress which many times does not last long. These people can sometimes still assist in their own rescue by grabbing a lifeline or life ring.

Real drowning is not what most people expect. There is not much splashing, no calling for help or waving of the arms. Many people watching have no idea of what’s happening.

According to Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., except in rare cases, people are physiologically unable to call out for help. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs. When the mouths of drowning people are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly before sinking below the surface of the water again and therefore do not have time to call out. Drowning people also cannot wave for help. They instinctively extend their arms and press down on the water's surface to create leverage so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe. Their bodies may also be upright in the water with no sign of kicking. They might have only 20 to 60 seconds before they go under.

All this was named the Instinctive Drowning Response by Dr. Pia and it is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water.

Here are some signs of drowning:

  • 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 roll over on their back
  • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

So pay attention - when you see someone in the water, especially children, remember that drowning may not look like drowning. If you suspect something is off, ask the person if they are ok. If they can answer then they are most likely ok. If they look at you with a blank stare, you will need to act fast to get them out of the water.

Parents should note that children playing in the water are usually pretty noisy - when they get quiet make sure you immediately check to see what's going on.

Stay safe this summer around water!

For additional tips please contact Cinda Seamon, Fire & Life Safety Educatoremail icon, Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue, 843-682-5141.