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Drowning: A swimmer’s guide to safety

It’s summertime and the weather is warm. That means folks are hitting beaches, lakes and rivers in droves. It also means the danger of drowning is high. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 10 people drown every day in the US. Water safety recommendations – such as wearing a life jacket and swimming with a buddy – are effective ways to prevent drowning.

When you’re in trouble

But what should you do if you find yourself in trouble in the water? As a swimmer, how can you save yourself?

Flip, float and follow

The non-profit Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project has developed Flip, Float and Follow to help swimmers take control if they’re in danger of drowning. Flip Float and Follow is comparable to the familiar fire safety method of Stop, Drop and Roll. Its commands are easy to remember and quick to implement in a crisis situation. Here’s how it works:

Flip: If you are drowning, flip onto your back.

Float: Float on your back to keep your head above water, calm yourself and conserve energy.

Follow: Follow the safest course to safety. If you’re caught in a rip tide, never swim against the current. Swim perpendicular to the current’s flow until you are out of it and then swim toward shore. If you are too tired to swim to safety, continue to float and signal someone on shore or on deck for help.

If you can’t remember these three steps, then remember to float. If you’re struggling or fighting the water or current, you are drowning. Stay afloat, stay relaxed and stay alive.

What does drowning look like?

What if you are safe but someone else is in trouble in the water. Would you know how to recognize the danger?

Drowning is quiet: Rarely, if ever, do drowning victims wave, call for help or splash and flail their arms. Children tend to make a lot of noise when playing in the water. When they’re quiet, it’s usually a sign of immediate danger.

Here are signs that a person could be drowning:

  • Head titled back
  • Hair covering eyes or forehead
  • Mouth at water level
  • Body vertical in the water
  • Arms and legs moving in a “ladder” climbing motion under the surface of the water
  • A look of panic and glassy or closed eyes
  • Gasping for breath

Reach or throw, don’t go

Would you know what to do if you were in danger of drowning? Would you know how to rescue someone? Learn water safety tips.

If you’re unsure whether a swimmer is in trouble, ask. If they can’t answer, call 911, notify a lifeguard or call out for help. The only person who should get in the water to help someone is a lifeguard, according to the American Red Cross.

Follow the guidelines of Reach or Throw, Don’t Go:

Reach: Brace yourself on a surface such as a dock. Consider lying on your stomach to do this. Then reach an arm out to the person in distress or extend an object such as a fishing pole, tree branch or boat oar.

Throw: If the person is out of reach, throw an object that floats to the victim. A life jacket, inner tube, ring buoy or beach ball all would work.

Don’t go: Do not go into the water to rescue someone unless you are trained.

Even a strong swimmer can drown trying to help others. Drowning victims can grab a rescuer, pushing that person under water and putting the rescuer at risk.

One other option is to reach the person by boat. Get as close to the person as you can and instruct the victim to grab the side of the boat, or throw an object that floats to the victim.

To learn more about drowning and how to prevent it, check out this fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.



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