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Ask the Expert: Staying safe in the water

Apr 28, 2023

Bill Ramos William D. RamosAs temperatures rise and summer approaches, cooling off in the pool, the lake or at the beach is a great way to have fun, but it’s important to do so safely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 4,000 people die from drowning each year.

May is National Water Safety Month, and we asked William D. Ramos, director of the Aquatics Institute and associate professor in the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington, how to stay safe while enjoying activities in the water.

Q: What’s the best way to prevent drowning?

Answer: When it comes to boating, it’s crucial that those with less swimming experience wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Even strong swimmers should wear one or have one accessible. We have many stories of those who considered themselves strong swimmers still encountering a drowning situation in open water settings. Lifejackets are truly game changers when it comes to preventing drowning. Of the 81% of boating-related deaths reported by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2021, 83% of the people were not wearing life jackets.

Never enter the water or operate watercraft if impaired. If you’ve consumed alcohol, used illicit drugs or taken medication that can make your drowsy, you should not be in the water. Just like a designated driver, assign a person who will not operate the watercraft impaired and who can help make good decisions about everyone’s safety when needed. In addition, designate someone as a “water watcher,” who will be dedicated to watching everyone in the water and is capable of helping if needed.

In addition, it’s important to consider learning how to swim and about water safety. If you haven’t been in the water over the winter months, it’s also important to get your swimming skills back up to par before heading back in. It’s best to find a way to keep swimming in your life throughout the year.

For more prevention information, the American Red Cross created the Circle of Drowning Prevention that highlights five ways to prevent drowning based on what we know from national statistics.

Q: Who is at highest risk of drowning?

A: Children have the highest risk. Drowning is the leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 4. That’s why it’s important to start swimming lessons early and create barriers to enclose pools that prevent children from getting in the water. Children should always be supervised when in the water.

We also see that men are at a high risk due to contributing factors such as alcohol use and risk-taking behaviors. Nearly 80% of people who die from drowning are male. Among adolescents and adults, alcohol use is involved in up to 70% of deaths associated with water recreation, like boating or swimming. People with seizure disorders, like epilepsy and certain medical conditions, also have an increased risk of drowning.

Q: Is there a higher risk of drowning when in a pool or a natural body of water like a lake?

A: Natural waters can pose a greater risk because they have currents that can move you away from the shore or your boat quickly, and there are hazards under the water that are difficult to see. Even in lakes you’re familiar with, the conditions can change from day to day – debris such as a tree limbs could have moved through the current when they weren’t there the day before. You should never enter the water in a lake or other open water source headfirst because you don’t know what’s beneath you. Even in pools you shouldn’t enter the water headfirst unless it is more than 9 feet deep and marked for diving.

Q: If you’re a strong swimmer and think someone needs help, should you jump in to rescue them?

A: If you see someone fall into the water who needs help, you should throw something that floats for the person to grab on to instead of going in to try and make a rescue. We teach “Reach or Throw – Don’t Go.” But if you do find yourself in the water with a panicked person, you should always put on a life jacket and then keep something like a life ring or additional life jacket between the person in trouble and yourself. Even if you consider yourself a strong swimmer, if you are untrained on how to rescue a person from in the water, you could become a victim as well. Remember no matter how well you may know someone who is in trouble in water, they will attempt to grab on to you as a way to try and stay above the water in their panicked state.

Q: What should you do if you fall in the water and get caught in a current?

A: Call and wave for help if you’re able. If there is no immediate danger, you can flip on to your back and float with the current and wait for it to lessen or swim parallel to the current to swim out of its flow and to shore. Never try to swim against the current since it can tire you out quickly. Remember when there is a strong current not to rely on floatation devices such as innertubes of inflatable toys as a means of safety. You should also make sure not to chase one that may get away due to wind or the related current.


IU Newsroom

Mary Keck

Communications Manager, Public Safety

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