“It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so”. Will Rogers.
I thought I knew what a drowning person would look like. Until I read this in an old ON SCENE – The Journal of U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue
Most people assume that a drowning person will splash, yell, and
wave for help; and why wouldn’t they? That’s what we see on television.
Without training, we are conditioned first to think of drowning
as a violent struggle that is noisy and physical. It is not.
Coast Guard rescue crews are less likely to see a person drowning
than nearly every other water rescue professional (beach and pool
lifeguards). Our relative distance to the accidents and distress calls
to which we respond usually puts us on-scene well after persons
who may experience problems have done so. However, if you play
this game long enough you will see a victim in the water. You may
even be the one directing him or her to get in the water. Extenuating
factors such as increased levels of stress, secondary injuries, and
environmental factors can increase the likelihood of distress and/or
drowning in the victims we find. It is important that we learn to
recognize the behaviors associated with aquatic distress and drowning,
so we can make informed decisions during emergencies.
The Instinctive Drowning Response represents a person's attempts to
avoid the actual or perceived suffocation in the water. The suffocation
in water triggers a constellation of autonomic nervous system
responses that result in external, unlearned, instinctive drowning
movements that are easily recognizable by trained rescue crews.
This is not to say that a person in the water that is shouting and
waving is fine and doesn’t need assistance. They are in what is
known as aquatic distress. They are not drowning, but realize they
are in trouble and still have the mental capacity (and lung capacity)
to call for help.
Our rescue crews must know what drowning looks like. Recognizing
panic and distress in the water is something that they must learn
and train for in order to perform their jobs effectively.
Characteristics of the Instinctive Drowning Response:
1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically
unable to call out for help. The respiratory system
was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary, or overlaid,
function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.
2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear
above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people
are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to
exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s
mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as
their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively
forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on
the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water,
permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can
lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning
people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically,
drowning people who are struggling on the surface
of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary
movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer,
or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response
people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of
a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these
drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water
from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.