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Distress behaviors and how to recognize them

This is an excerpt from StarGuard: Best Practices for Lifeguards, Fourth Edition by Jill White.


A person in distress is still on the surface of the water but is struggling to stay afloat. The person’s mouth or nose or both are above the surface, and he is still able to breathe (see image below). Some behaviors that indicate a person is in distress include the following:

  • Head back and body low in the water
  • Arms extended from the sides and moving up and down
  • Minimal use of the legs, with little support from a kick

Often, a person in distress will try to remain upright and turn to face the nearest source of assistance, for example toward a lifeguard stand, the pool wall, or shore. If this is the case, and the person is relatively close, you may be able to recognize a fearful, wide-eyed look on his face (see figure 4.2). However, you cannot rely only on facial expression to indicate distress because a person may be facing away from you or blocked from your view by other people.

If distress continues, the person’s mouth and nose will sink below the surface of the water, and she will begin to drown. How quickly a person progresses from distress to drowning varies depending on many circumstances. A person who cannot keep his mouth and nose out of the water and breathe will die unless someone intervenes. The earlier the person receives help, the better the chance of keeping a distress situation from becoming a fatal drowning.

It is important to understand that not everyone experiences distress first, before drowning. Many drowning victims are not upright or on the surface of the water to start with and therefore never exhibit any of the observable instinctive responses to try to stay on the surface. Examples include people who submerge underwater and never surface. Chapter 5 provides more detail about the circumstances that often surround drowning without observable distress.


Learn more about StarGuard: Best Practices for Lifeguards, Fourth Edition.

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