Water safety: Drowning prevention strategies that could save a life
When a powerful riptide swept away six members of a Florida family plus four other swimmers, beach goers formed a human chain and rescued them.
The incident in Panama City Beach, Florida, where no lifeguard was on duty, made news around the country thanks to its feel-good vibe of strangers helping save the lives of other strangers. But it also serves as a cautionary tale on the risks associated with large bodies of water and mistakes people make in them.
“Never enter the water to save someone unless you are trained to do so and have the right equipment,” says Dr. Andrew Schmidt, DO, MPH, an osteopathic emergency medicine physician and drowning researcher in Jacksonville, Florida. “You can’t fault bystanders for wanting to help, but it is very dangerous to attempt a rescue without proper training and equipment. A single trained rescuer with equipment could perform this rescue safely.”
Dr. Schmidt is also co-founder of Lifeguards Without Borders, an organization dedicated to eradicating the global threat of drowning through education, training and outreach. In 2016, Dr. Schmidt and a group of researchers outlined comprehensive guidelines for the prevention and treatment of drowning, published in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine.
“Beach goers should also learn how to spot a riptide,” says Dr. Schmidt. “Rip currents are a leading cause of drowning in the ocean and they can be almost 100 percent avoidable if you know what to look for.”
What is a rip current?
A rip current is a strong jet of water that quickly flows away from shore, sucking swimmers away from safety at speeds of nearly 10 feet per second. Rip currents usually occur during high winds and when waves crash perpendicular to the shoreline.
One of the best ways to identify a rip current visually is to look for flow of discolored water moving perpendicular to shore causing areas of non-breaking water within a wave. These areas should be avoided. When in doubt, ask a lifeguard about the safest area to swim, says Dr. Schmidt.
“If you or a family member are caught in a rip, staying calm can save your life,” he adds. “Rips do not pull swimmers under the water. Rather, swimmers drown from tiring out while trying to swim against the rip. Stay calm, and either attempt to swim parallel to shore or let the rip take you out. Rips often dissipate once away from shore and a swimmer can then either swim parallel to shore out of the rip before swimming back in or signal to a lifeguard for help.”
“If you or a family member are caught in a rip, staying calm can save your life.”
Non-fatal and fatal drowning episodes like the one in Panama City Beach happen every day, especially during the summer when water activities peak and swimmers and non-swimmers alike venture into oceans, lakes and pools to find relief from the heat.
On average, about 4,000 people die from drowning every year in the U.S. and the majority of them are children, with those under 4 years old at the highest risk. Younger kids who don’t know how to swim tend to be most at risk from accidentally falling into a body of water or submerging in a bathtub when a parent has walked away.
Older kids are more at risk due to over-confidence in their swimming abilities and dangerous water conditions, such as rip currents, says Dr. Schmidt. “Don’t get over-confident and remain vigilant,” he cautions. “Drownings tend to happen when parents let their guard down.”
For teens and adults, alcohol plays a huge role in drowning episodes.
“Alcohol is a contributing cause in a lot of water accidents,” says Dr. Schmidt, “and leads to a lot of deaths.”
How can emergencies be prevented?
To help prevent water-related injuries and emergencies, Dr. Schmidt encourages parents and caregivers to:
• Learn CPR with rescue breaths. Compression-only CPR does not treat drowning.
• Keep non-swimmers within arms reach, not just within view.
• Ensure pools are properly guarded. Do not swim in areas without lifeguards.
• Teach water safety, including no diving in shallow waters.
• Warn teens of the risk of swimming under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
• Never let children swim alone.
• Help your kids learn to swim as early as possible.
“There’s no evidence to tell you when it’s the right time to teach a child to swim,” says Dr. Schmidt, “but my 10-month-old knows to flip onto her back in the water and that’s possibly enough to save her life.”