To recognize distress or drowning, you must continuously perform three crucial observation skills: scan, target, and assess. To scan means to watch the water, using specific patterns and timing. If you notice a situation that might indicate a problem, you will target the person or people and look more closely. The next step is to assess the situation and determine your course of action. The following scenario illustrates how you would use your observation skills:
- Scan. While you are watching a crowded pool, you notice a man holding a young child. He is standing in shoulder-deep water, and they are located near a gradual slope into deeper water. Neither exhibits distress symptoms. However, you notice several things about the situation that could indicate a potential problem, so you briefly target your attention on the father and child.
- Target. You target the father and child for closer examination for the following reasons: The father’s bobbing movements are gradually pushing him toward deeper water. The child does not appear comfortable in the water. The crowded conditions may prevent the father from quickly changing position and moving toward shallow water.
- Assess. You assess the situation and realize with one more step the father could quickly become submerged just enough to be unable to breathe or to recover to a standing position. You decide to take action and intervene to get the attention of the father, directing him to move back toward shallower
Let’s consider another example. A seven-year-old child is playing in the shallow end, which for him is water that is chest deep. He and a friend decide to move out a bit from the edge, pushing off the bottom and bobbing or maybe “wall walking” (holding on to the side) a couple of feet into slightly deeper water. The water is just deep enough that when the child pushes up off the bottom to get to the surface for a breath, his mouth does not clear the water. The child gulps a mouthful of water instead of air. In this situation, the child is not able to cry out for help because he is already underwater. The child’s movements may make him appear to be swimming underwater, and if you don’t have a clear underwater view, you may not notice anything extraordinary during your scan. You may not recognize the situation because there are no signs of distress until the child stops moving and is unresponsive. In this case, the lack of movement you notice when you scan, if the movement of the water is not obstructing your view, is what causes you to target the situation for further examination, assess it as an emergency, and begin a rescue. In many instances it will be a nearby patron, with a clear view, who may notice the victim first. Whenever someone in the water requests your attention and has concerns about another person in the water, respond immediately and check it out.
Anytime you see something and are not sure what you are looking at, check to make sure it is not a drowning victim. Lifeguards who have seen a submerged drowning victim often describe what they saw as a “shadow” or a “smudge.” Statements such as “I thought it was a towel on the bottom” or “It looked like the drain but it was in the wrong place” or “I thought the person was swimming underwater” are common. Lifeguards who have seen a drowning victim floating on the surface often claim, “I thought she was relaxing” or “I thought she was playing.” Do not make assumptions about what a person may or may not be doing if he is submerged for much longer than 10 seconds or not actively and obviously swimming and exhibiting signs of life.
In some instances, a change in movement may cause you to target in on a situation. For example, if a patron has been swimming laps and her stroke pattern, tempo, or body position changes, this could signal distress. If a person enters deep water and begins to ineffectively move his arms to try to keep on the surface, this person could be in distress and need your immediate intervention. A drowning person may still be moving, submerged but near the surface, with a wide-eyed and panic-stricken look and not able to call out or wave for help.