I know we will be getting a lot of backlash and negative comments about this blog because our opinions are probably in the minority as we are rocking the traditional water safety boat. We do however believe that what we have to say is extremely important and should be analyzed objectively by those who read it.

More and more actual drowning scenarios are being caught on security cameras but unfortunately, only lawyers and expert witnesses typically get to see them; water safety advocates who need to see them, don’t. Most of the videos cannot be made public because of confidentiality agreements signed by both parties. We are a few of the fortunate ones that have the opportunity to view these significant videos as a part of lawsuits. But what these videos of actual drownings reveal is surprising, startling, and significant. We have watched numerous total non-swimmers traverse swimming pools in wild, frantic displays that are unique and diverse. One boy pirouettes across the pool kind of like a Spinner Dolphin or a gymnast doing horizontal jumping jacks. Another performs a wild, frantic upside down butterfly with arms coming high out of the water in an attempt to stay afloat. This same victim then spins his arms alternately out of the water in a wild crawl stroke, again with arms high but goes nowhere except eventually to the bottom. Still yet another pushes off bottom of the pool and ballistically comes way out of the water like a Polaris Missile until he fatigues and drowns. And finally, very small children simply drown face down flat, horizontally on the surface with little or no movement. 

What these actual drowning videos show us is that we really cannot predict how potential drownees will act when they are fighting for their lives. We worry that if we continue to teach our lifeguards and parents the traditional signs and symptoms of drowning victims that have been taught for decades, they may create a mental picture of a drowning victim that does not match reality. As a result, our teachings may be counterproductive. While some drowning victims do in fact display a vertical posture with head back, weak kick and arms groping just below the surface, many do not. We do agree that drowning is silent and we do agree with the RID Factor. However, more and more security camera footage illustrates that drowning may not be as instinctive as we have been teaching. As Dr. John Hunsaker has stated, “Victims don’t go to Drowning School,” and apparently they have not read our texts. What we have evidenced on these videos is a variety of frantic, erratic movements in the water lacking meaningful purpose or direction. This piece is not intended to make light of drowning scenarios and the resulting tragedies. Nor is it intended to criticize our colleagues who have worked so diligently to save lives. Our hope is that as technology grows in swimming pools we may be able to scrutinize actual drowning footage to better protect people and save lives. Finding these videos and sharing them whenever possible is the first difficult step in the process.


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Comment by Shawn P. DeRosa on July 19, 2013 at 12:59pm

I have to agree with Tom.  With technology present almost everywhere, and with phones and tablets capable of capturing high-definition video, those of us involved in litigation are privileged to see the exact type of footage that Tom mentions, yet we are not allowed to share it.  I'll go out on a limb and say that most experienced aquatic safety experts have seen video footage of drowning victims that challenge textbook definitions of drowning.  Sometimes permission is granted to show videos in educational programs/conferences, but that is rarely the case.  In one video at the AOAP conference we saw video footage of a child drowning.  The child actually moved down the full length of the pool, crossing under two lane lines at the end ... easily 40 or 50 feet of distance.  If we followed the "textbook" drowning examples, drowning involves "no forward progress."  However, this child traveled nearly 20 yards (or more) before losing consciousness and submerging.

I absolutely agree that many victims do exhibit some tell-tale signs of distress, including those that have been described as instinctive.  But we have to also consider what human factors and cognitive psychology experts will tell us:  we see what we expect to see and ignore the rest.  If we teach lifeguards to expect drowning to look a certain "textbook" way, then lifeguards may discount any behaviors that are not textbook.  Far too often, as Tom describes, lifeguards witness activity that doesn't seem to be "textbook" and discount that, testifing that they "weren't sure" if the victim was drowning.

Perhaps the best thing to do, as Chris suggests, is to teach lifeguards what "swimmers" look like and encourage them to focus in on any behaviors that are inconsistent with someone who is comfortable in the water (or "swimming").  This helps reinforce was drowning does NOT look like, and leaves open to further attention those behaviors that MAY suggest that someone needs help.  I'm not saying to skip over the "textbook" definitions, but rather drive home the point that not every drowning victim behaves the same way.  We should teach lifeguards to expect the unexpected and to react anytime something just doesn't seem right.  As Dr. Tom has said in his videos, "When in doubt, fish 'em out!" 

Comment by Chris Griffith on July 18, 2013 at 11:40am

Perfect. I have been waiting for something like this to be said. All the years spent working on the stand have proven to me that no two victims are the same. I've been teaching my staff this for years. It's important for guards to understand that there is no cookie cutter drowning victim.

Comment by Gary Thill on July 18, 2013 at 9:55am

A brave and important blog, Tom! I hope every aquatic pro reads this and that it starts a much needed discussion about drowning myths and how to fight them. Ultimately, this kind of information is what's going to save lives. Thanks for starting the discussion!!

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