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How to prevent drownings: Columbia lifeguards, aquatics managers offer advice

Thursday, June 20, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:21 a.m. CDT, Thursday, June 27, 2013
Columbia residents swim off of the beach at Stephens Lake Park on Tuesday. The beach is one of the only unguarded public swimming areas in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — Although the city's outdoor pools opened just over three weeks ago, lifeguards at Albert-Oakland Family Aquatic Center have already had to pull two people out of the water who were struggling. 

In 2012, Columbia Parks and Recreation lifeguards had to jump in the water 104  times to help swimmers in trouble. No one drowned.

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The serious problems arise where there are no lifeguards. It's a simple matter of training and experience: A well-trained lifeguard knows what drowning looks like. The vast majority of the population, without professional lifeguard training, doesn't. Or we think it looks like what we've seen in movies or on TV. 

In the American Red Cross lifeguard training, lifeguards are taught to first look for swimmers in distress. But distress can be quiet and unobservable — without the arm-waving and shouting for help that is practically the iconic image of drowning.

A swimmer "can quickly go into the drowning phase, where they cannot call out for help," said Connie Harvey, the program manager of aquatics for the American Red Cross. "It's all about breathing when that happens."

According to Missouri State Highway Patrol data, 20 drownings were reported in Missouri last year. All of the drownings took place in rivers, lakes and ponds, with the exception of one private pool. Sometimes there were witnesses, sometimes not. Sixteen of the victims were male, and six were 18 or younger. Alcohol was confirmed to be involved in seven of the drownings. 

Since May 26 of this year, six drownings were reported to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. All the victims were men. Again, so far this year the drownings have taken place in unguarded swimming areas — a private pond and the lakes.

"They're unguarded facilities, there's not really anyone to train when it comes to that," said Janel Twehous, Columbia recreation supervisor of aquatics and special events.

Drowning data

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study:

  • Every day, about 10 people in the U.S. drown.
  • One in five of those who drown are children 14 years old or younger.
  • Eighty percent of all drowning victims are male.
  • Drowning is most common in children 1 to 4 years old.

There are two types of drowning: active and passive. Active looks a lot like what you've seen on TV. There's movement, panic, maybe even crying out for help.

The more common type of drowning is passive. That's when the victim can't make large movements or loud sounds, according to Columbia pool manager Chris Fernandez.

"It's really important for everyone to have an understanding of the phases," Harvey said.

Unfortunately, there's no list of indicators that will help identify a victim every time, said Richard Carroll, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Jeff Ellis and Associates. Ellis and Associates is a company that provides lifeguard training and certification, including to Columbia's lifeguards through Columbia Parks and Recreation.

"The term 'drowning' is difficult because at what point is a person actually drowning?" Carroll said. Every drowning experience is individual, he said.

But among the signs might be a lack of leg movement, wide eyes, gasping for air, and a lack of calling for help, he said.

Harvey and Carroll advised the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to water safety.

  • Supervision is key. Swim where there are lifeguards. You should always be within arm's reach of your child, especially if he or she is a weak swimmer. But also be watching your child when he or she is around the water.
  • Learn to swim. Formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning of children ages 1 to 4 by as much as 88 percent, according to the CDC. Harvey said a 2013 Red Cross poll showed that roughly half of all parents who planned to take their children to unguarded swimming areas this summer intended to do so despite their children not knowing how to swim. They put their faith in their own abilities or flotation devices.
  • Put your child in a life jacket. "Floaties," "water wings" and other flotation devices aren't as reliable as a standard life jacket. In the poll, 67 percent of respondents said water wings are enough to keep children safe without supervision.
  • Teach your children respect for the water. In one of five households with children, none of the children knew how to swim, according to the poll. Remember that even when they are around water, there is a potential hazard.
  • Know what to do. It's important to know how to help a victim while keeping yourself safe. First, call for help, then throw something for the victim to grab onto without entering the water yourself (drowning sometimes happens in pairs when a would-be rescuer also gets into trouble). Knowing CPR and how to use a defibrillating device also helps.

"Always go back to the top of the list," Carroll said. "Supervising is the most important."

The CDC's list of risk factors for drowning includes location, lack of swimming ability, lack of supervision, failure to wear a life jacket, alcohol use and seizure disorders.

What guards look for

Kevin Almora was a lifeguard for five years. He saved 13 people.

"I look for someone small in deep water," said Almora, aquatic manager at the Columbia Activity and Recreation Center. "Someone shorter than the depth of the water."

He has seen "active" drowning.

"Half of my saves were kind of just scared, yelling, panicking," Almora said.

The other half were people who didn't realize the water was as deep as it was, or were non-swimmers.

"Some people think you sink to the bottom like a rock," said Ryan Hanlon-Dooner, assistant manager at the Albert-Oakland Family Aquatic Center. Hanlon-Dooner made one of the saves this year at the Oakland facility.

Victims aren't always splashing, and they don't just sink like what you may have seen in a movie, said Fernandez, the head manager at the Oakland pool. Instead, the swimmer has a look of fear. He's gasping for air, not yelling for help.

"Sometimes they'll be swimming, trying to move, and then they just stop and can't move," said Nikia Chapman, assistant manager at the Oakland facility.

Fernandez said the guards are trained to jump in if there's even a possibility of a struggle.

The city of Columbia employs about 100 lifeguards in the summer. For the guarded facilities, the city's program requires constant in-service training and VAT (Visual Awareness Training) "drops," in which a mannequin is dropped into a pool along with actual swimmers, and the lifeguard has to recognize and "save" the mannequin.

During the summer months, every guard is required to attend at least one hour of in-service training each week. In the fall and spring, an hour is required every other week. Each pool manager is also responsible for conducting a practice save during every shift.

Ultimately, there's some common sense involved in preventing drowning.

"If anything looks out of the ordinary," Harvey said, "my goodness, do something."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.


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