OCEAN CITY, Md. - Moms and dads know to keep an eye on their kids at the pool and at the beach. But do you know the signs your little one is in trouble in the water? ABC2 News Joce Sterman tell us why you may have the wrong idea, because drowning doesn’t always look like drowning.
It can be hard to hear above the crashing waves and even harder to see what's happening between the bodies splashing in the surf. Just ask beach mom Tracie Simonelli. She tells ABC2, "Two more eyes would be a great thing."
Along the beaches of Ocean City, you've got dozens of extra eyes peering down from the tall white Beach Patrol chairs that line the shore. Longtime lifeguard John Miller says, "In my scan I try to look at everybody about every 15 seconds."
But a lifeguard's focused gaze is scanning for signs of something you may not even recognize. Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin explains, "I know in police departments, you're not supposed to profile people. We do."
The guards are profiling swimmers they may eventually have to save, searching for signs someone may be drowning. But forget the flailing, splashing and cries for help, because drowning doesn't always look it does on TV. Jewish Community Center Aquatics Director Bill Kirkner says, "Especially in small children, drowning is silent and swift."
And it’s a tragedy that happens in big numbers. According to CDC data, more than 440 Marylanders drowned between 1999 and 2007. That figure includes 119 children and teenagers. But lifeguards are trying to lower those numbers by teaching you what to look for. Miller says, "With experience you can tell who is relaxed and who is a little worried and who might really need some help."
But if you're not an experienced lifeguard, how can you tell someone is truly in danger in the water? ABC2 is working for you to detail the signs with help from the experts. Arbin says, "Drowning victims never face away from shore. They're never looking that way. Somehow they always manage to get their face turned around so they're looking where they want to go."
Troubled swimmers simply want access to dry land. And since they can't get there, they panic and start out as what experts call a distressed swimmer. Miller explains, "When they're thrashing around and trying to swim quick, that's a distressed swimmer."
That's the picture we have in our minds of drowning. But flailing swimmers still have fight. They scream, kick and can usually make some progress in the water. But people who are actively drowning may not even look like anything is wrong. They stop splashing because they're exhausted and slowly slipping under the water fast. Miller details their experience, saying, "The active drowning victims are starting to get water in their lungs, they're starting to let their head get below the surface of the water. They're sort of at the mercy of the currents."
Lifeguards say they only have about seconds to make a rescue before the victim goes under. That means they have to quickly recognize the signs and take action, whether they're at the shore or scanning swimmers at the pool. But it’s even hard for the experts to see at first. Kirkner says, "You can't replicate the panic but once you've seen it you absolutely know what it is."
At the JCC pool in Owings Mills, they're training young lifeguards to throw out the idea of drowning they've seen on TV. They're showing them the difference between distressed swimmers and active drowning victims. Kirkner says it’s a difference in body positioning, “(Distressed swimmers) They're going to hang in the water kind of at that type of diagonal angle. Somebody who is actually drowning though, they take a positions that's straight up and down, their arms out to the side. Their head is back and their legs don't move."
Active drowning victims may bob up and down as their lungs fill with water and they run out of breath. But chances are, they won’t make a sound. That’s what happened two weeks when a toddler nearly drowned in an Anne Arundel County pool just a few steps from other swimmers. Burrell Stewart was there and tells ABC2, "Someone said the kid's not breathing. I turned around and there he was about five feet away."
It was just one example of how quickly and quietly a drowning can happen, even in the midst of a crowded pool. Kirkner says, "A lot of parents think if their child gets in trouble there's going to be a lot of splashing, a lot of noise and they couldn't possibly be more wrong."
That’s because drowning is a danger you can't always hear until it's too late. But it's a danger you can see, if you know the signs that could save a life.
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