The Instinctive Drowning Response: Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning - ITS Tactical

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The Instinctive Drowning Response: Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

By Bryan Black

I was forwarded a great article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene Magazine a few weeks ago by a friend, which went into drowning and the Instinctive Drowning Response. With Summer in full effect, I thought it appropriate to share with everyone here on ITS.

While we’ll look at the signs of drowning below, it’s important to note that it’s not like the movies where people are screaming for help and violently splashing the water. It’s often an undramatic event that doesn’t resemble drowning at all.

My only encounters with drowning victims were during pool evolutions at BUD/s. These examples aren’t really what you’d often see in a public setting, as these were men who were “red lining” (the instructor’s terminology for someone passing out underwater) rather than giving on the evolution. Their signs were motionless and void of any struggling or screaming. They just simply passed out.

Being a Lifeguard for my son’s Boy Scout Troop, I’m always staying up to date on my Lifeguard Certifications and CPR/First Aid through the Red Cross, but I’ve never been exposed to anything on the Instinctive Drowning Response and the specific signs associated with it.

Instinctive Drowning Response

Dr. Francesco A. Pia coined the Instinctive Drowning Response, which ” represents a person’s attempts to avoid the actual or perceived suffocation in the water. The suffocation in water triggers a constellation of autonomic nervous system responses that result in external, unlearned, instinctive drowning movements that are easily recognizable by trained rescue crews.

This is not to say that a person in the water that is shouting and  waving is fine and doesn’t need assistance. They are in what is known as aquatic distress. They are not drowning, but realize they are in trouble and still have the mental capacity (and lung capacity) to call for help.”

Characteristics of the Instinctive Drowning Response

  1. Drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help, except in rare circumstances. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.
  2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  4. Drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  5. People’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

(Source: Coast Guard On Scene Magazine)

What this all comes down to is staying vigilant while you’re out on the water, or even relaxing by the pool in the backyard. Learn to recognize the characteristics of the Instinctive Drowning Response so you can react quickly in an emergency.

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  • 5.56PIG

    I have always war gamed what I would do if I observed a drowning person. Thank God I have never had to rescue a drowning person, but with that being said, I had taken for granted that I would see the “movie” version of a drowning person. Excellent info. Thanks.

  • Tyler

    An article of my expertise, this is a pleasant surprise! haha.

    I have been a lifeguard and manager at a county water-park for approximately 6 years now including time working as a Waterfront-guard. Despite preventative-lifeguarding techniques we still pull three to four drowning victims out of the water per day. From a “close” distance (under 15m) one of the best indicators is the victims eyes- in an instant they go from a normal size to extremely dilated.

  • jarrod

    Terrifying footage! Doesn’t really look like you’d think as a layperson, but really glad I’ve seen it, it’ll stick in my head.

  • Christian Nadeau

    I worked for about 5 years as a lifeguard at a pair of indoor pools and had to pull a number of drowning victims out (mostly little kids who took one too many steps towards the deep end) and only one person actually “looked” like he was drowning. His arms were slapping furiously at the water while every other person I had pulled out did indeed look like they were doggy-paddling. However, absolutely none of the people I pulled out had their mouths going in and out of the water, not even the adults. I also had training in diver rescue involving drowning scenarios when I was an assistant scuba instructor but never saw any first-hand so I can’t comment on whether they look the same. I imagine they would if the actions and limb movements are instinct. I would say that anyone who plans on being around water should be schooled on what a drowning person actually looks like and how to help the person safely.

  • Jwhite

    IM so confused. How/why was that child drowning? I’ve grown up around water so I know how to swim. I dont understand how people “just drown” I could be approaching this with a narrow mind. I understand things happen, but I’ve never been in a positon to comment on what drowning feels like.

    • Lauren

      If you don’t know how to swim. There’s a lovely little thing in pools called drop-offs, or slopes. I nearly drowned twice as a kid b/c a.) you don’t really notice them, and b) I didn’t know how to swim. In hindsight, what was hilarious was that the first time around, I was flailing about right next to the lifeguard chair. He never noticed.

  • Omer Baker

    I worked one summer as a life guard & the one thing that sticks out in my head is if a person is in panic mode they can possibly take the rescuer down with them. Never get too close as they may grab on and pull you down with them, that’s why guards typically have the orange rescue tube.

  • How could I download the video? In youtube we have youtube downloader.

  • thinbluelion

    I’ve learned to look for all these indicators while patrolling on the beach. Two more indicators are facing towards shore (usually with a thousand yard stare) and not attempting to keep their head above the waves. We’ve had two drownings already this summer. Both were weak/nonswimmers caught in the rip currents. I’ve learned to wear a velcro duty belt without keepers so I can ditch it quickly if I need to get wet.

  • JLS

    I can attest to this as being someone who almost drown when I was about 9 years old. I remember being in that instinctual mode to just break the surface and get air. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and eventually I went under and had almost passed out by the time the life guard got to me. Talk about your complex motor skills going out the window!

    I remember watching a thing about the Coast Guard and their swimmers typically approach drowning victims from behind snatch them and give them the flotation device to grab on to instead of allowing the victim to grab on to them.

    Great article!

  • mikedetroit

    I was a navy helicopter rescue swimmer and spent most of my time pulling out bodies and body parts (yea loads of fun) so my experience with live ones has not been extensive. I have been out of the military for a few years and so last summer we were vacationing in north carolina and on the beach. I tend to be hyper vigilant so i was swimming with my daughter and noticed 2 morbidly obese men way out past the point they should. I watched for a bit noticed they were struggling and began moving towards them when the older one starting going under as the son tried to hold him up. Made my way out there only to find both were not going to make it back on there own but problem was no one else was out there to help. I had no flotation and equipment and knew i would struggle with one and the other would not make it. Fortunately i was able to get the attention of a surfer who was able to come over and help get them back. I was a bit upset and confused about why they would go out so far and past the point i would and i am a very strong swimmer and do not panic in the water. I said nothing, told them i wad glad i can help and that it was their tax dollars at work! Lol

    Point is you never know when you will have an opportunity to help some who over estimates their ability! Lol

  • Charles

    I’m an Eagle Scout and I got all of the merit badges related to swimming, life saving and first aid. I was taught how to rescue someone, but not really what to look for. Thanks for posting this! I’m definitely going to teach my twins this as they get older.

  • JPF72

    When I was a kid, there were only a couple of times I was ever really scared when in the water. One was when I was on a beach in Maine, and was walking in water up to my waist when I hit a drop-off and went in way over my head. I had been staying roughly the same distance from the shore, so it was a shock. I ditched whatever knick-knacks that were in my hands, and quickly got back to the beach, but that could have been disastrous, had I not been a better swimmer. Next time, I was visiting cousins in Florida and swam out from their local beach and was having a great time when my siblings and I looked around and noticed we were a lot further down the beach than when we went in. We started swimming into shore, and didn’t appear we were making any headway. We had been in a strong current running parallel to the beach and didn’t know it. We knew what to do, and made it back to shore after a little while, but it was scary for an 11 year-old.

    If I had been a regular at either beach, or more familiar with swimming in the ocean, rather than a pool, maybe these incidents may not have occurred, but we were typical vacationers, and didn’t think to ask such questions.

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