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Old 14-06-2011, 20:57   #1
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Instinctive Drowning Response

I recently came across this and thought that it might be useful for the forum. I have followed the pages back almost to 100 and have not seen it as yet. I tried a search but the hits clearly indicate that I have been unable to narrow the search sufficiently. Sorry if this is the wrong place or if it is a duplicate post.

"The Instinctive Drowning Response – so named by Francesco A. Pia,
Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in
the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very
little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any
kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface
drowning can be, consider this: It is the number two cause of
accidental death in children, age 15 and under (just behind vehicle
accidents) – 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 (source:
CDC). Drowning does not look like drowning – Dr. Pia, in an article in
the Coast Guard’s On Scene Magazine, described the instinctive
drowning response like this:

Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are
physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system
was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid
function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.
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.
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.
Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, 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
From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response
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: On Scene Magazine: Fall 2006 (page 14))

This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing
isn’t in real trouble – they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not
always present before the instinctive drowning response, aquatic
distress doesn’t last long – but unlike true drowning, these victims
can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw
rings, etc.

Look for these other signs of drowning when persons are in the water:

Head low in the water, mouth at water level
Head tilted back with mouth open
Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
Eyes closed
Hair over forehead or eyes
Not using legs – Vertical
Hyperventilating or gasping
Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
Trying to roll over on the back
Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder.

So if a crew member falls overboard and everything looks OK – don’t be
too sure. 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 up at the deck. One way
to be sure? Ask them, “Are you alright?” If they can answer at all –
they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less
than 30 seconds to get to them. And parents – children playing in the
water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out

From: Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning
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Old 14-06-2011, 21:49   #2
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Re: Instinctive Drowning Response

My kid walked off of a rock in the Gibbon River in Yellowstone. He didn't realize that it dropped off from a foot deep to 6 feet deep. I looked away for a few seconds and he was gone. I couldn't see him at first. It took way too long to find him. He was standing on the bottom of the river looking up at me. Not in any distress that I could see, but he was drowning, just like the article says.
He's fine now.
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Old 15-06-2011, 13:55   #3
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Posts: 180
Re: Instinctive Drowning Response

Thank you for the excellent info. I've seen people in distress in the water on number of occasions and I agree with the article.
"The acquisition of the knowledge of navigation has a strange effect on the minds of men." /Jack London/
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