Here’s how to stay safe in the water, according to a former lifeguard

According to the CDC, an average of 3,536 people unintentionally drown every year — that’s roughly ten per day.

As a former lifeguard, swim and CPR instructor, I’ve been schooled in the nuances of water safety. Here’s what you need to know to keep your family safe at the lake, beach, and pool this summer.

What does drowning look like?

Unlike what you might see on TV, drowning may not involve screams, thrashing or hand signals. Look for a weak or inefficient kick, attempts to reach for the edge, and neutral or negative buoyancy.

What can you do if you think someone may be drowning? Experts recommend throwing anything that floats to the person. It could be a life jacket, swim noodle, or even an empty cooler with the top closed.

“This is why ocean lifeguards use rescue buoys and tubes,” explains B. Chris Brewster, Chair of the National Certification Committee of the United States Lifesaving Association, “upon arrival at the distressed victim they push the buoy to the person in distress, and once the victim has something that floats, their panic subsides dramatically and you can talk them to shore or assist them.”

Basic Water Safety

Adults should always supervise young children. (Photo: Getty)
Adults should always supervise young children. (Photo: Getty)

Keep these basic fundamentals in mind during your next water-related activity.

Focused supervision: Designate a responsible adult who can supervise young children. They should not be involved in any other activity that might distract them, such as reading, playing cards, talking on the phone, or mowing the lawn — even if lifeguards are present. Switch out the designated adult from time to time as attention spans wane over time.

Swim with a buddy: This tip is for the adults! Choose a venue with lifeguards whenever possible, even if you’re a good swimmer and never swim alone.

Choose the right equipment: Lifeguards and swim safety experts agree that inner tubes, ‘swimmies’ and foam toys can offer a false sense of security.

“Flotation devices like blow-up rafts and noodles allow a person with low or no swim ability to get into deeper water and potentially get separated from the device,” adds Brewster.

Choose a life jacket approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. They’re designed to not slip off, and have been tested to keep someone of an appropriate age and weight afloat. And, don’t be misled by colors – just because a product is yellow or orange nylon doesn’t mean it’s an approved safety device.

Pool Safety

According to the CDC, most drownings occur in home swimming pools among children ages 1 to 4. Here is what experts recommend to keep safety top of mind, year-round:

Secure the area: Install a pool fence with self-latching gates and automatic alarms to prevent access or alert you if someone enters the pool area.

Clear the pool and deck of toys: Remove floats, balls and other toys from the pool and surrounding area immediately after use, so children are not tempted to enter the pool area unsupervised.

Drink responsibly: Among adolescents and adults, alcohol use is involved in up to 70 percent of deaths associated with water recreation. Alcohol influences balance, coordination, and judgment, and its effects are heightened by sun exposure and heat. Drink responsibly, stay hydrated and take breaks in the shade often.

No diving: Diving or jumping into shallow water can cause life-threatening injusries.

“This is especially important in rivers and lakes where conditions can change rapidly, and items can move into an area that perhaps were not there the day before,” explains William D. Ramos, PhD, member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and associate professor of Health and Wellness Design at Indiana University School of Public Health–Bloomington.

Check water depth before entering and enter slowly, feet first.

Beach Safety

Here's what you need to know about rip currents. (Photo: Amazon)
Here’s what you need to know about rip currents. (Photo: Amazon)

Rip currents don’t pull people under the water — instead, they pull people away from shore.

“Eighty percent of [beach] rescues are due to rip currents, with most of these incidents happening to stronger swimmers,” adds Brewster.

Spotting rip currents is tough — even experienced beach lifeguards have a hard time since signs are often subtle. “Sometimes rip currents can look like the calmest area and that causes people to gravitate to it when it’s an area you actually want to avoid,” says Brewster.

If you get caught in a rip current: The best advice here is to stay calm. Don’t tire yourself on this “aquatic treadmill.” Swim parallel to shore and float on your back to conserve energy.

Look for the flags: There is a standardized system for beach flags, the primary colors to look for are yellow and red. Yellow signals an above-average hazard level for that area – red is flown when it’s a high hazard condition and lifeguards recommend you don’t enter the water at all.

Boating Safety

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 87 percent of victims in boating-related fatalities that occurred at lakes and rivers were not wearing a life jacket.

“Many people who participate in boating or a boating activity including fishing, hunting, paddling and towed water sports generally don’t think they will drown because they know how to swim, don’t plan on getting in the water, or it is a nice calm day so nothing is going to happen,” says Mondick. However, open water, has hidden hazards that can increase the risk of drowning. “These include sudden drop-offs, dangerous currents, vegetation and rocks, colder temperatures, difficult-to-judge distances, rougher water including waves, limited visibility and more,” she adds.

Drop anchor: If you are leaving the boat to swim, make sure to secure its location with an anchor and attach ladders beforehand.

“Understand that the reservoir where Naya Rivera died was very deep [and] an anchor probably wouldn’t have reached the bottom,” explains Brewster. The best advice is to wear a life jacket anytime you choose to leave the boat.

Stay with the boat: If your boat capsizes you should stay with the boat. Move around to the boat’s lowest point and try to climb on top, unless it is being carried toward a dangerous place such as a dam or waterfall. If you cannot climb onto the boat you may want to try attaching yourself to the boat with clothing in case you lose your strength.

Swim Safety during COVID-19

COVID-19 has forced the closure of many facilities that would otherwise be open to offer swim lessons. Experts fear this lack of swim education may increase safety concerns as we move through this pandemic.

The Red Cross is offering a free online course that focuses on developing an awareness of the risks of drowning and how to minimize those risks, especially for young children.

Don’t rely on technology, swim aids or others in the vicinity. I always recommend professional swim and CPR lessons for everyone, as these skills are priceless and can save lives. Above all else, have a plan, be safe, and definitely have fun!

Video by Kat Vasquez

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