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Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning (2010) (mariovittone.com)
151 points by Tomte on July 25, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 40 comments

When I trained lifeguards this was the most important lesson, bar none.

I personally have never seen IDR look like 'climbing a ladder' (hands are usually out sideways, though I'm not doubting other's more comprehensive experience). But head tilted right back, so the mouth is the highest point of the body, and only the face visible, that's been the key. The nasty thing is that, in an outdoor environment where the water isn't transparent, this means that drowning people are very difficult to spot. Most of my years spent lifeguarding were hours spent counting and memorising people: 28 people in this section, two leaving, three boys with blonde hair horseplaying, twelve girls kicking up splashes, watch for the dark haired girl in green who is bouncing along not swimming, careful of the four people the splashes are obscuring...

There is a series of videos on Youtube with examples from some big pool.

I thought, now I know what to look for, how hard can it be?

Turns out, very.

I watched twenty videos or so. Not once did I see the guy in trouble before the lifeguard blew the whistle and jumped in. Usually not even after watching him the first few meters swim (and thus limiting the possible area to watch).

Not to downplay the skill involved in lifeguarding, but the camera position/focal length in most of those videos offers an absolutely terrible view of those swimming compared to what the lifeguard can see.

In my experience, the challenge of lifeguarding is mostly a mental battle to stay focused. It's not that hard to spot people who are drowning if you're paying attention to what's going on, especially if you know what IDR actually looks like, as detailed in the OP. It's also pretty easy to pick out the people who are most likely to need to be saved just by watching them move in the water. But again, being able to pick up on that requires focus.

Here is one video [1] from the channel I believe you are referring to.

[1] https://youtu.be/4sFuULOY5ik

Watch the lifeguard during this. She's covering her area, but stops sweeping it a few seconds into the vid, she looks down, checks back towards the middle, looks away, checks back. She begins to move into space to enter as soon as the kid's ring flips and is in the water as soon as he goes vertical. An excellent bit of guarding, totally exemplary. I'd be very surprised if she didn't mentally note him as a high risk a while before this.

I've just watched a number of videos from that series. The #1 thing to look for in that pool is tube flips, most of which can be predicted by looking at who is monkeying around with their tube in some strange way.

That said, I can't spot anything nearly as fast as the guards do. And the I replay the video, knowing just who to watch and sometimes I'm surprised at how long they've been in the water when the guard finds them.

I can't really see the "ladder climbing" referenced elsewhere, but the style of "swimming" that goes on during drowning does stand out after you've seen a few. There were a few times where I thought the person was still swimming at first, especially the kids trying to swim back to their tube and failing, but even then you can sort of see a change in their behavior when instinct takes over and their body just starts jerking around.

EDIT: Here's a good example of what I mean. Watch how their swimming suddenly changes when they start drowning and their arms begin thrashing. I actually found this one before the guard whistled: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXFgOBjk860

I watched about 30 of those videos and enjoyed the challenge. Like a moving Where's Waldo.

I agree about the tube flips. It was almost always a kid in a tube that leans over too far and then gets dumped out. Once I knew what to look for, I usually saw it about a second or two before the lifeguard. I was very focused, and it helps to know that the drowning is going to occur in the next few seconds. I would be very stressed out working as life guard, having to do this search all day for real!

In a couple of videos, the victim was a parent with child that left their tube and was struggling to both swim and hold their child above water. There was one tricky case where two people were swimming to get the same tube, and the one who got there second, thus losing the tube, started drowning. I was surprised that this person could switch from swimming to drowning so quickly.

It was also scary to see people in the pool next to the drowning victims not react at all. Validated the article.

> was struggling to both swim and hold their child above water

Rescuing active drowning victims (this kind of drowning) is very dangerous, for that reason. The victim won't just hold you, they'll climb you. And keep climbing until their head and shoulders are out of the water. Because your combined bodies have finite buoyancy this means you go down. The victim doesn't have to be big to push you under. It is nothing to do with strength at all, and nothing to do with how strong a swimmer you are. I defy any strong swimmer to tread water for more than a couple of seconds with a 6 year old on their shoulders.

So a lifeguard without a flotation device has to approach victims very differently. Normally from behind, where they can't be climbed. Their aim is to get the victims head only just above the water. The victim is panicked, and won't like that one bit. Some of the rescues in the video aren't that great for that reason: the lifeguard doesn't keep the buoy between them and the victim, putting them one slip of the buoy away from a possible double drowning.

I've heard LGTIs tell students that in extreme cases they should wait for the victim to go passive (lose consciousness) before a rescue, if they can't approach safely. I'd never teach that, because it is unnecessarily callous and easy to misinterpret. But as a rescuer you do have to be prepared to swim down to get the victim to release you. Being safe around a drowning person is hard, and most lifeguard trainees massively overrate their swimming power in that situation. That's why there are so many multiple drownings.

> I was surprised that this person could switch from swimming to drowning so quickly.

That's a really good point. It is surprising how folks you mark as being 'okay swimmers' can change immediately something goes wrong. I think it is the power of that instinct. I don't know how many people gradually get into difficulty, then begin drowning. It's rare, I think. More common something in their brain switches from 'in control' to 'panic' and the body takes over.

> Rescuing active drowning victims (this kind of drowning) is very dangerous, for that reason. The victim won't just hold you, they'll climb you.

My only save as a lifeguard was a double for this very reason: the drowning kid's older brother jumped in to save him, and they both went under as the younger one scrambled for air.

"Good thing I jumped in after you, huh?" said the older brother, after I dragged them to the side. I wanted to punch him.

I watched a bunch more and now I feel better able to spot them just by looking for the swimming style. Seeing people go from ok to drowning is something I wouldn't recognize without having watched these.

This one was too easy; spotted it almost immediately into the video. It's usually fairly easy to spot people "out of their element"--he was not floating with the waves and was going under every single time.

I had my eye on him so much I was afraid I was going to miss the "real" victim and I had to force myself to keep scanning :/ Just as bad.

Yeah, after training my eyes on these videos, I just sort of defocus and watch for the drowning person's swim and I can often spot them before the guard whistles (obviously, I have huge advantages and have seen them more than once).

There's one were a few people thought the guard was too fast--they went in immediately after someone flipped their tube and went down head first. But I've seen enough of the other videos to recognize the fact that they really were drowning at that point.

I just thought that one video was a good example of how everything changes once someone starts drowning, because it wasn't a tube flip or anything like that. It was just someone who had a few waves knock them under and cause their instincts to switch on and you can see exactly where the transition occurs and they go from swimming (if struggling) to drowning.

Looks like the kids parent saw him too at about the same time, the lifeguard was just a much stronger swimmer and got to him first. Agreed that it was excellent guarding, must be tough in a crowded pool full of kids that are barely able to swim like that.

Impressive how naive the reason can be yet how powerless a kid (even an adult) might feel when things tip over all of a sudden like that.


Counting is a very pragmatic way to help. A little bit like poker.

It sounds like some cameras hooked to face-recognition software would be a good defence-in-depth here. Detect when a face "disappears" for longer than a given interval without leaving the water perimeter, and start an alarm that needs the life-guard's manual override to stop.

Do you really constantly count and succeed to memorize all of them? Would assisted computer recognition of disappearing bodies allow a lifeguard to watch a bigger beach? It seems like people constantly swim outside the dedicated flags, so it could be an improvement.

I did count okay, and attempted to remember people, especially those I wanted to keep track of: anyone on their own, weak swimming individuals, people who might have their mind elsewhere, etc. A whole count and a count of the groups was enough. But you're right, it changes constantly. It takes concentration.

People tend to get in difficulty particularly if they go out in a group (threes are the worst, ime), and the others move away or swim deeper, or come in. So I noticed problems more than once when a group didn't tally ('there were four friends there, where's the other one?')

Because of the property I ran, the count was feasible, but on a long beach or a packed facility it probably wouldn't be. We had around 50:1 ratio max. I tried a bunch of stuff with my team, but it was the thing that worked best.

There are bits of tech to do some spotting, and there are companies that do 'remote' lifeguarding (i.e. offshore people watching video, with an onsite guard in case something happens). I can't speak to the use of that, because we had state regulations that meant we had specific staffing structure.

A quick Google yielded this: http://www.poseidonsaveslives.com/

I was a lifeguard from the age of 16-22, indoor and outdoor, I learned to swim starting at age 4. Not once did a person drown at the facilities I worked, my watch or not. I probably rescued ~100 people in that span of time.

When you're around a pool that much, its almost instinctual. You can immediately spot weak swimmers, even on busy days. You develop the ability to "group" people, both by proximity and in terms of strength. Also, 95% of life-guarding is preventive. You can spot a problem before it actually becomes a problem, much the same way one might do while driving.

To this day whenever I'm at a pool or ocean, I'm scanning the water. I don't even realize I'm doing it most of the time. I'll be at a pool and ask a child to stop running, out of sheer habit. I'll see teenagers tossing a little kid up in the air in water too shallow, and ask them to stop, and sheepishly realize I don't work there. Ironically they always listen.

> Also, 95% of life-guarding is preventive.

I remember this well: sitting in a chair, scanning the pool, and every 20 seconds yelling, "Walk, please!" I was a living reminder to slow the heck down.

I'm pretty sure it was one of my most important tasks, though. The only serious injury I ever witnessed (a skull fracture) happened when someone was running on deck.

Please keep doing it; you're making the world a better place.

My story is much like yours. My mother was a stay-at-home Mom. She made extra income by sitting for a few kids after school and during the summer. During the summers we spent everyday at the pool. Took swim lessons from as early as I can remember. Became a lifeguard at the same pool I grew up at when I turned 16 and came back every year until I was 22.

During my years as a guard, I had roughly 100 "saves." Most were inner-city males, bused in a few times a month.

I'll never forget my first save. Its one of the few I really honestly consider a save and not just proactively going in after someone before it became a real issue. It was around 7:45PM, the pool was about to close and people were starting to leave. She was about 3 years old carrying a beach ball larger than her above her head. A strong gust of wind blew the beach ball from her hands and into the deepend of the pool and she ran right after it and into the water. She went straight down to the bottom. I watched the whole thing happen in what seemed to be maybe 3 or 4 seconds. Soon as she went in, I went in after her. Pulled her out and got her to the side and before her dad even realized what happened. I doubt she even realized what happened. Her dad couldn't stop thanking me for saving his little girl.

My most terrifying save was on St. Rita's Day, which is a school in Cincinnati for the Deaf. It was one of my first days guarding the pool and a deaf guy and his two deaf daughters went up a slide in the shallow end of the pool. When they got to their turn he put one girl in each arm and sat down. I tried and tried to whistle at them to get their attention. When I finally did it was too late and they had started going down the slide. No sooner did they leave the gated area did they fall over the side about 15 feet into 3 foot water. He landed standing and still holding onto the girls. I jumped in and rushed over to them. His arm had broken when he tried to grab the gate to prevent his fall. I didn't know sign language at the time so I couldn't really communicate with him which made the situation even worse. We were lucky though, we did have one girl who was pretty good and was able to talk to him, ask him and the girls if they were ok. The girls were fine but after his adrenaline had calmed a bit and we got him out of the water we noticed he had also broken one of his legs in the fall. As far as I am aware, that was the last St Rita's day we had.

My son is now 3 and I have already started teaching him how to swim. I vow to never have to worry about him in the water.

My wife jokes about how I act near pools and bodies of water. Always scanning, always counting, always watching for signs of a weak swimmer and I always will. Its part of me.

I'm a lousy swimmer, but when I was an active duty Marine I had to swim qual every year.

One year during swim qual I was doing the last bit, basically get from point A to point B in helmet, camies, and boots. Since it didn't matter how we got from point A to point B, I always did a sad approximation of a backstroke.

This particular year, as I was approaching point B, a safety swimmer started yelling at me to hurry. As I crossed point B, I felt his arms go under my armpits and he rapidly pulled me toward the side of the pool, where he and a corpsman (e.g. Navy nurse) pulled me up on the side of the pool, such that I was sitting with my feet in the pool. At which point the corpsman started giving me the Heimlich maneuver, and a rather significant amount of water started coming out of me.

I had been struggling slightly more than normal, and to a point, I knew I was gradually sinking, but I was so focused on finishing that I genuinely didn't even realize I was taking in water. It was only as I was on the side of the pool and watched as water came out, with each of the corpsman's compressions that I realized what had happened. Thankfully the safety swimmer and corpsman realized!

> of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In ten percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.

I wonder how a parent or adult could ever forgive themselves. Tragic.

You don't. Not ever. 27 years later, you will still think about it... every... day. And you would do anything, give up anything you have and anything you've ever done for the chance to undo it.

This website cycles through a series of videos. You will see a different scene depending on when you opened the link. For that reason, not all of the comments here refer the same particular incident. Even so, they all depict the common characteristics of someone drowning, followed by a lifeguard who quickly spots this and acts to save the child. Sometimes you can see the rescued child's face and the panic is obvious.

At first viewing, it is not always obvious why the lifeguard acted, but on repeat viewing the signs of drowning become very obvious: head persistently under the water, arms held out to the side, body rigid, jerky movements, and remaining in one spot rather than swimming about. Sometimes it is possible to mark them as being at risk before they get into difficulty.

Everybody should learn how recognize these symptoms.

Serious question: why didn't we evolve a more effective instinctive drowning response than the one we currently have? For instance I learned how to tread water the first or second time I entered a pool and cannot remember a time when I would drown if placed in deep water, even though I took a long time to learn how to swim.

that's a good question. in my experience drowning often looks like a person standing straight up and down with their legs straight and still and their arms reached out wide to their sides. head tilted back to try and get their mouth above the surface. they kind of look like they are trying to fly to up to bird mom for a bite of food.

its ridiculous looking and absolutely terrible as a self preservation technique.

i'd be willing to bet if many people trying to save themselves kicked their legs a couple times they'd have a much better chance at survival on their own. but they don't, they forget about their legs and try to fly.

one guy i jumped in after went about a foot or two under water, stretched his arms out and flapped them up and down. his down stroke was never enough to bring his head above the water and his up stroke was enough to undo the little his down stroke did. he looked like a fishing bobber bouncing up and down under the surface as a fish nibbled off the bait. i had been watching that particular guy as he waited in line for a diving board, got to the front of the line, climbed up the couple steps, looked around then got back down. he did that 2 or 3 times before he got the courage to actually jump. when i noticed him doing it i did a quick chirp over to the guard in the boat and gave him a sign that signaled i was watching someone and would likely be going in after them.

Real drowning is a quiet, terrifying event.

In waves it can happen almost invisibly. Remembering who you've seen where, and when, is challenging but critical.

why does this get posted periodically? is it in order to remind people who are running startups that they may be going under but that it might not always be immediately obvious, especially to the untrained eye?

It fits neatly into the guidelines, as it is not only important, but also highly useful and interesting information (I didn't know about IDR before). And well written.

You are simply mistaken if you think this is "Startup News".

Yup, agree, and thank you for the clarification.

That first paragraph gives me goosebumps every time. I'm fine with the yearly reminder. :D

Because it saves lives.

No but I won't lie -- my mind went there too and I chuckled to myself. Glad to see I'm in good company.

Maybe some people on HN feel like they have a moral obligation to help others?

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