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Water Safety 101

What to remember when having fun in, on and around the water this summer.

Rising temperatures and falling coronavirus cases mean that Marylanders are back to enjoying the water! After months of being cooped up in the house and practicing strict social distancing, those who take to the pool or Bay could quite easily forget how important it is for swimmers and boaters of all ages to practice and promote water safety.

So, hoping to make 2020 a year in which we read far fewer headlines of drowning deaths than we did last year, here are some top things to remember when you’re having fun in, on, and around the water this summer.

Safe Swimming

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s national campaign, “Pool Safely: Simple Steps to Save Lives,” provides a number of tips to promote the safety of all swimmers, but especially young ones:

Never leave a child unattended (or unwatched) in or near water. While a no-brainer, this isn’t as easy to accomplish as it might seem when you consider the ever-present distraction of our phones. For this reason, the Commission suggests that groups designate a parent or caregiver to serve as the official “Water Watcher,” whose one and only task is to focus 100% of their attention on and regularly take headcounts of children in the water.

Children should learn to swim as early as possible so that they can not only take care of themselves but also have fun. Next, teach children to stay away from drains. Whether in the deep end or shallow end, hot tub or water park, children should not play or swim near drains or suction outlets because their hair, limbs, jewelry, or bathing suits can get stuck or pulled into them, which can lead to drowning.

Lucy Goszkowski, Anne Arundel County Department of Health’s Public Pools and Spas Program Supervisor, adds one more: Don’t practice extended breath-holding under water or have contests to see who can swim the farthest or longest under water, as this has resulted in deaths of even those in excellent physical shape.

IMG 9090Bay Swimming
While the above suggestions are applicable to all water situations, there are specific risks that swimming in the Bay or at the beach pose. So, whether taking a dip off a dock or spending a week in Ocean City, remember:

  • Don’t swim if you have open cuts, scratches, or lesions—and, according to Goszkowski, seek immediate medical care if you get one while in the water.
  • Don’t swim for at least 48 hours after a heavy rainfall (a half inch or more) due to elevated levels of bacteria.
  • Don’t swim near storm drains, murky water, algae blooms, or fish kills in the Bay, and steer clear of fishing piers, rock jetties, and wooden pilings at the beach.
  • Download the Maryland Healthy Beaches app, and sign up for alerts on current beach conditions during Maryland’s beach season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) at MarylandHealthyBeaches.org.
  • At the Atlantic beaches, swim in areas that are supervised by lifeguards, only when they are on duty (10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in Ocean City), and ask them about rip currents that can pull you away from shore.
  • Swim with at least one buddy, and at least one adult should serve as a Water Watcher when children are swimming.
    Do not ride/bodysurf on waves that are breaking in shallow water or on the beach

On Drowning
Unlike what’s shown on TV shows and in the movies, drowning usually happens quietly, with those in distress unable to get enough air or compose themselves enough to flail their arms or call for help even once—especially children, for whom drowning is the second cause of accidental death.

“Drowning is silent,” says Goszkowski. “Parents may think that if their child falls in the water, they will hear splashing and screaming. But many times children slip under the water silently, and people near or in the pool have even reported hearing nothing unusual during drowning incidents.”

In a 2006 article in ON SCENE, The Journal of U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue, Dr. Francesco A. Pia described the Instinctive Drowning Response, “a person’s attempts to avoid the actual or perceived suffocation in the water,” and his signs of drowning have been very well-cited since. They include:

No Calls for Help
Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help because the respiratory system was designed for breathing, with speech the secondary, or overlaid, function.

Further, drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water and are not above it long enough for them to call out.

No Arm Waving
Drowning people cannot wave for help because nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface in an attempt to lift their mounts out of the water enough to breathe.

No Kicking
People’s bodies remain upright in the water throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, with no evidence of a supporting kick, and they only struggle on the surface of the water for 20-60 seconds before submersion occurs unless rescued by a trained lifeguard.

So what can you do if you see someone in distress? Call a lifeguard, call 9-1-1, and throw them a lifesaving device. But follow the tips above, hopefully you won’t have to.

—Steve Adams

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