Drowning doesn’t look like drowning

Conjure up an image of a drowning person, and you’d probably visualize somebody waving and wailing in the water. In reality, drowning may happen more silently than you think.

“It can happen right behind you and you may not know what is going on,” warns Mario Vittone, marine safety specialist and US Coast Guard member.

Called the Instinctive Drowning Response, this 40-year-old research by Francesco A. Pia, PhD found that people who are drowning may not conform to the previous description.

“There’s ‘aquatic distress’ when a person can still swim (and yell), but they know they might be in trouble,” said Vittone. “But if they’re actually drowning, then they quit making any sound of any kind.”

This research states that a drowning person is physiologically unable to call out for help. Usually the mouth is above the water just long enough to inhale and exhale before the person starts sinking again.

A drowning person also can’t wave for help. Instead, a person instinctively presses down on the water’s surface hoping to get their mouths above the water to breath. A rescuer typically has between 20 to 60 seconds before the person in this state goes under water.

“The one thing we don’t want to see is having more than one victim,” said Dale Miller, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon’s Lifesaving Society. “If you can make the rescue with the least risk, that’s the best thing to do.”

The Lifesaving Society recommends using the Ladder Approach. This method offers ways to assist a drowning person without unnecessarily putting the rescuer in danger.

Talk Rescue:
Provide verbal instructions and encouragement to the patient from a dry, safe location.

Throw Rescue:
Throw a buoyant aid to the patient from a dry, safe location while talking the patient to safety.

Reach Rescue:
Reaching the patient with an aid and pulling him to safety from a dry, safe location. The rescuer must anchor himself by holding onto a solid object with his free hand.

Wade Rescue:
Extending an aid to the patient while in shallow water. The rescuer must hold onto a solid object.

Row/boat Rescue:
Extending an aid to the patient while in a water craft.

Swim Rescue: Swimming to the patient and talking the patient to safety while providing a buoyant aid, but without making direct contact.

Tow Rescue: Swimming to the patient, providing a buoyant aid and towing the patient to safety without making direct contact. The rescuer pulls from the other end of the aid to tow the patient to safety.

Carry Rescue: Swimming to the patient and carrying the patient to safety. Applicable to patients who don’t respond to verbal encouragement (such as a drowning non-swimmer) or if the patient is unconscious.

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