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Most drownings can be silent and difficult to notice

POSTED: June 14, 2013 12:16 a.m.

Like the undisturbed surface of Lake Lanier, sometimes drowning can be calm and quiet.

It’s a frightening reality that medical experts point to during swim season.

“Most drownings are like ‘silent death.’ A person can slip underwater unnoticed, even with other swimmers or a parent close by,” said Lynn Adams, senior director of aquatics at the Georgia Mountains YMCA. “It also happens very quickly. A person will not struggle at the surface for long before sinking underwater, where they are even less likely to be detected until it is too late.”

Rather than looking for flailing limbs, Adams said signs of drowning can include a head tilted back with mouth open, eyes glassy and empty and unable to focus and a vertical body with lack of leg movement.

The body’s response to drowning, coined the instinctive drowning response by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., Adams said, can be silent to preserve breathing function, making it physiologically impossible to cry out in distress.

Supervision within earshot, therefore, isn’t necessarily enough.

“A parent or caregiver should be actively supervising with no distractions,” said Kim Martin, coordinator of Safe Kids Coalition, a Gainesville child safety advocacy group. “It’s the instances where people turn away, answer a phone call. It only takes a few minutes for someone to be in trouble, and in the lake and open bodies in particular because you can’t see the bottom.”

Lifeguards at the YMCA are trained by Red Cross certification guidelines that address proper visual scanning technique and frequency, but new technology is seeking to cover the gaps of a trained eye.

“While our guards are trained to scan their entire area of responsibility every 10 seconds, including looking above and below the surface of the water (including scanning the bottom of the pool), these systems can add a degree of insurance because the cameras see below the water,” Adams said. “An underwater view eliminates the challenges of seeing through glare, choppy water, or heavy currents that are caused by water features.”

The Georgia Mountains YMCA has no plans at this time to install the computer-aided drowning detection system called “Poseidon,” she said.

Drowning is the No. 2 cause of accidental death in children ages 15 and under, behind car accidents, Adams said, citing Centers for Disease Control statistics.

Martin stressed the importance, in the absence of an official lifeguard, of establishing a “water watcher” to take that responsibility.

“A lot of our drownings with small children have been in situations where there were multiple kids, multiple adults, but not that one person designated to be a ‘water watcher,’” she said. “Especially during the summertime, and holidays, it’s understandable that families want to be able to enjoy themselves, but they should designate an adult to be that water watcher for 30 minutes then change, or whatever system; that way every one can enjoy themselves.”

Adams said lifeguards frequently wonder if it’s prudent to not be overly alarmist.

“A lot of the questions we get when we’re training guards is they ask, ‘What if I start to save someone and they aren’t drowning?’ Well, if they didn’t need you, it doesn’t matter. You’d rather do that 10 times and be mistaken than miss one,” she said.

At the same time, she stressed untrained rescue can create additional victims.

“If you’re not trained to go out there, don’t,” she said.

On June 1, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said the cause of a Lake Lanier drowning was a rescue attempt of three children who were riding a tube that flipped.

The children were wearing life vests, another safety point Martin stressed.

“A lot of parents tend to go with those inflatable wings. Those are a swimming aid, but not a life-saving device. Children should wear life vests that are U.S. Coast Guard-approved. It’ll be on the label, and stamped inside the vest within that weight of the child,” she said, referencing the size designation of the vests.

Martin said improperly sized vests are a safety hazard.

“A lot of times parents buy next size up, and they shouldn’t do that. It should fit that child at that time. With gravity, if the child is in the water, and the life jacket is going to float, if child raises his or her arms, the child’s body goes down and the vest goes right up over their head. All the snaps need to be snapped, snug and buckled,” she said.

Martin also said parents should not leave behind toys that could tempt curious kids back to the water.

“Don’t leave toys or anything in the pool. Kids are naturally curious about water, and if you leave beach balls or floats in the water, they see that, and they may want to play with it, reach over and grab it,” she said.

But beyond good supervision and precautions, Adams said raising good swimmers is a primary goal of the Y.

“We at the Y most emphasize swimming lessons and education. This is huge, and we don’t have people taking advantage of lessons in the numbers we think they could,” she said.


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