Drowning does NOT look like drowning!

It’s been an exciting month actually. I have been doing quite a bit of instruction with, Trainers and Duty Managers. Now I’m not talking about the “normal” training covered in any syllabus or part of the excellent IQL UK Ongoing Training and Competency Assessment - I’m referring to “scare the pants off you training!”

I am very fortunate (or maybe unfortunate depending on how you look at it) in my working life to “come into contact” with near drownings, near misses and actual tragedies that occur in swimming pools around the UK and Ireland.

I get to talk with the, Trainers and Managers etc. who are responsible for, on a daily basis the safety and wellbeing of the swimming public and their teams.

I mostly get to “chat” in an informal way with staff, when perhaps unguarded conversation flows more easily - after all - I have no authority, not a member of management nor any organisation, no exam is being taken, I’ve been there, done that, and sadly worn the T-Shirt etc. etc.

Now there is much I could share from these conversations and will do so in the future without naming names or sites etc. but for now this piece is about something that continually astounds me and I wonder is it because we don’t have a forum in the industry to share these experiences about near misses or actual fatalities so that others can learn? Or is it just a case of "that was close, but we got away with it - on to the next task!"

We hear plenty about the aftermath of some of these events and incidents but rarely about the chain of events which led up to it NOR do we EVER get the take on what nearly happened or what did happen (unless it has ended up in an unfortunate inquest).

I think the industry is getting better at sharing about good news events when a Lifeguard or group of have done a really good job and “saved a life” and I am also aware that on a daily basis, by their very actions PREVENT a chain of events from developing into something tragic, but here is the thing:-

Despite all the excellent and continuous training, I am forever and always amazed that (many who are very young) still expect that a person in difficulty will attract their attention with a shout or a wave!

 Surely the greatest misunderstanding of what a drowning or near miss looks like is that a person is splashing and thrashing around and shouting for help?

I can - with some authority tell you that this is NOT the case!

Drowning is ALMOST ALWAYS an incredibly quiet, un-remarkable and serene event.

In fact to almost quote from the “Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy” - “The most remarkable thing about drowning is that the only remarkable thing about drowning is that it is remarkably unremarkable” - until after the event of course - then all hell breaks loose!

To digress for a second - For those of you reading this with children, here’s a brutal statistic that should grab your attention - Half of all children who will drown this year will drown within a few meters of their parents. Those parents will be completely unaware anything is wrong - try to imagine life after that!

When I show clips of near misses to Staff - you can hear a pin drop - when they pick their jaws up off the floor and reality kicks in, many many are shocked by how short that window of time is from when a person is swimming happily until all of a sudden, they are drifting gently to the bottom.

What were they doing in that 15 seconds of inattention? Were they distracted by a work colleague or member of the public, thinking about the football/hockey or the night they had out with the guys/girls - whatever - it just takes a split second of inattention to invite tragedy into their lives.

Lifeguarding is a tough job with great responsibility - you train professionally all your working life to prevent and respond to something that may never occur - there are not many other jobs out there like that - fire and rescue crew at an airport perhaps? How would you feel if that incident occurred in the very split second you mind was elsewhere? I dread to think - the moment has been lost!

The worst advice I have ever heard from a swimming pool was an instruction from a person in authority to the Lifeguards – “keep a wee extra eye on the pool as someone has drowned in a neighbouring facility” Amazing! That really is how to inspire staff and re-energise them and reinforce the importance of vigilance!

My son, who is a newly recruited casual Lifeguard asked me just last night about what to do IF you see something or someone that doesn’t look quite right (there seems to be a fear from many  of making a false call and looking silly), I said to him ALWAYS trust your instincts - if it it doesn’t look right it probably isn’t - what is the BEST thing that can happen - you will get wet and a bit of stick from your colleagues - the WORST is ignore it and pull a body from the pool later!

Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking around for safety. One way to be sure is to ask them, “Are you all right?” If they can answer, they are probably OK. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them to safety.

 More often than not though, the incident will commence with a medical condition, heart attack, epilepsy, shallow water blackout (SWB) perhaps brought on from Intermittent hypoxic training.

 When a drowning happens again - and it will - in all probability this will be the quietest and most “unremarkable” 120 seconds of their career - after that - Life will NEVER be the same!