A 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.
Grace M Frank is a freelance editor and writer, and the owner of Frank Communications, www.frank-comm.com. 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.