Advanced Professional Healthcare, LLC

Advanced Professional Healthcare Education, LLC

Group classes available for any course that we offer. We will travel to you at no additional cost. Contact Us! or call 414-791-5018

Distressed vs. Drowning Swimmers


APHE7-14A group of teenagers is splashing about in the deep end of a community pool: Some are laughing, some are diving to pull another friend under, some are slapping the water to stay afloat.

How does a lifeguard determine whether they're all engaged in harmless play—or if one is actually a weak swimmer in distress?

That's the million-dollar question for every lifeguard, parent or guardian. But, as trained lifeguards know, there are patterns of behavior common to distressed and drowning swimmers. The challenge is recognizing these behaviors in a single swimmer at a pool, lake or beach crowded with people, and putting into immediate action a precise rescue plan.

In the time it takes out to read this blog—between 30 and 90 seconds, if you're a quick reader—that distressed swimmer will likely have started to drown.

How to Recognize a Distressed Swimmer

A distressed swimmer is, most often, a weak swimmer who has simply gone beyond his abilities. But he might also be a good swimmer who is being affected by cold water, or had been swimming under water and hit a thermocline (a layer of water with a dramatic  temperature difference) that caused him to gasp or begin to hyperventilate. Or, he's caught in a riptide, imbibed alcohol, or is having a medical emergency, whether cramps or chest pains.

I'm saying "he" here for a reason: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of all drowning victims are male.

The signs of a distressed swimmer are:

• a look of anxiety or panic. The person knows he is in trouble

• flailing, doggy-paddling or bobbing in the water with little or no forward progress

• face is above or at the surface of the water line

• body position can be horizontal, vertical or diagonal, depending on means of support

Distressed swimmers are able to wave and call for help, and they can grab and cling to the side of a pool, a nearby safety line, or a rescue device thrown their way. Quick action is essential, however, because fatigue and panic will build.

A trained and alert lifeguard will act within 30 seconds, and know the necessary steps to best assure a successful rescue, which, according to the American Red Cross and others, include:

• alerting other trained personnel of the need for a rescue (i.e., no solitary heroics)

• getting hold of rescue equipment, like a rescue tube or reaching pole

• having and executing—quickly, but not rashly—a planned approach to the victim, whether a simple assist or an in-water rescue

• using the best techniques to control and position a panicking swimmer, like a rear rescue

Everyone can get distracted, however, and lifeguards are no exception. A secondary task intrudes, or attention is diverted by a person with a question or a child who wants to chat.

And in that blip of time a distressed swimmer slips into life-threatening territory.

From Distressed Swimmer to Drowning Victim

There are two types of drowning victims, active and passive, and scant time that differentiates the two:

• An active drowning victim is conscious, but physically incapable of calling out, waving, or grabbing anything. That person is consumed with the necessity to breathe air. The head may be tilted back and the mouth open in an "o", or forward and beginning to drop below the surface. The body is vertical and the arms are pressing down on the water, but the feet are barely moving.

• In three minutes or less, that person will begin to suffer oxygen deprivation. He is now a passive drowning victim, and floating unconscious at the water's surface or sinking.

A rear rescue, in which the person is approached from behind and grasped firmly under the armpits and by the shoulders, then placed on a rescue tube and towed to safety, is usually necessary to help drowning victims, both active and passive.

Clearly, aiding distressed or drowning swimmers demands vigilance and continuous training.

A good lifeguard knows this, and knows and does what it takes to make certain our  playful group of teenagers stay both happy-go-lucky and safe.

GraceFrankGrace M Frank is a freelance editor and writer, and the owner of Frank Communications, She worked for many years as a reporter and staff editor at leading newspapers, including The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and The Tampa Tribune, where she covered education, government, and health issues. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in political science and a master’s from the University of Chicago in international relations. In her free time, she enjoys bike riding, books, good food, and blogging.

Upcoming Courses

Student Testimonials

Review of everything, plus learning new ‘tricks’ for assessments and remembering GCS. Overall, a great course. Remembered a lot and hand many skills reinforced. Thanks, Adam!
- Paramedic, PHTLS Provider Participant

Thanks again for teaching the ACLS course. Your mix of humor, in-depth background knowledge, and experience made for an enjoyable course that helped build confidence in my ability to run a code. I definitely feel ready...Thanks!
- Emergency Medicine Resident Physician, ACLS Provider Recognition Provider

Very good! Quick, concise, easy to understand and apply for real situations. Thanks!
- RN, BLS for Healthcare Providers participant

Great instructor: helpful, interesting, friendly. Appreciate the low cost of this class and how easy it was to register for it.
- RN, ACLS Provider Recognition participant

I like that Adam realized and took into account that everyone came from different backgrounds. Not all of us have cardiac or CCU experience. Thanks! Learned a lot!
- RN, ACLS Provider Recognition participant

I felt the instructor was very energetic and made everything clear. Answered all questions, very pleasant personality, put things in simple terms for people with no previous medical knowledge. Went beyond what an average instructor would normally teach! A++.
- RN, BLS for Healthcare Providers participant

Best CPR course I have taken.
- RN, BLS for Healthcare Providers participant

Great attentive instructor.
- RN, BLS for Healthcare Providers participant

Adam did a great job presenting the material and made the class enjoyable.
- RN, ACLS Provider Renewal participant

The added info during the video from instructor was very helpful and interesting.
- LPN, BLS for Healthcare Providers participant

The instructor makes the course fun, so it makes it easier to learn.
- C.N.A., BLS for Healthcare Providers participant

Excellent instructor—really enjoyed it!
- RN, ACLS Provider Renewal participant

He was funny and made it easy—thanks!
- C.N.A., BLS for Healthcare Providers participant

Adam made learning BLS fun, was very entertaining and kept the class moving at a good pace.
- Nursing Student, ACLS Participant