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What Does a Person Drowning Look Like? You Might Be Surprised

As the weather heats up, more and more folks around the Ozarks head to rivers, lakes, and pools to cool off. But a big risk that comes with such relaxation is drowning, especially amongst children. KSMU’s Samuel Crowe reports on the misconceptions of drowning, and what we should really be looking for.

[NAT SOUND: kids splashing]It 's a hot day at Fassnight Park in central Springfield, and the pool is full of children and their parents soaking up the sun and cooling off in the chlorinated water. But with this reward comes a risk: drowning. Mark Baker, the aquatics coordinator for the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, explains just how widespread drowning can be.

“Drowning for ages 15 and under comes in as the second leading cause of accidental death, right behind traffic accidents. So it’s prevalent across the country.” So what are the signs of a drowning person? Sarah Rusek of Kennettsquare, Pennsylvania was at the pool with her three grandchildren and offered her take.

“Frantic. Being frantic, and choking, and flailing.”Leah Shell was busy watching over her three kids and also gave her opinion.

“Splashing water with gasping breath, cries for help.”Nile Rees-Forsyth is a lifeguard at Fassnight, and described these explanations as a type of drowning known as distressed swimmer drowning. Signs of distressed swimmer drowning include struggling to make forward movement while calling for help. But Rees-Forsyth says another type of drowning presents a more serious challenge.

“Active drowning is kind of a more severe type of drowning, and it’s where they can’t respond, and they really are in their instinctive survival stage, and they’re just trying to keep their head above water.”This instinctive survival stage is known as the Instinctive Drowning Response. Baker explained that in the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning really doesn’t look like drowning. It's a lot different than the big spectacle portrayed on television or in movies.

“It’s not the splashing, waving, cries for help. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Cries for help in the instinctive drowning response, people can’t even cry for help. They can’t call out for help, and they can’t make splashes, because their sole focus is based on getting their airway up above the water and grasping for that breath of air.” The most important thing parents can do to prevent their own kids from drowning is keep a close eye on them. Rees-Forsyth said he notices a lot of parents who he thinks are neglectful, sometimes napping on the grass outside the pool area.

“Lifeguards are here in case the parents weren’t there next to their children to see them drown. And like it’s not a daycare, we get 700 people through here sometimes, and so it’s a lot of people to look out for.”Sarah Rusek’s husband, Paul, also stressed the importance of parental supervision.

“It’s the responsibility to the parent, not the responsibility to the lifeguard. The lifeguard is there to back them up in case something went and happened that the parent can’t take care of, but parents have to be there. It’s a family thing.” Mark Baker says another concern is parents and their lack of knowledge of what drowning really looks like.

“I think people just aren’t educated in what to watch for. In fact, a lot of the information out there says that a lot of these drownings occur within 50 feet of other people, and they don’t even realize that there’s someone drowning close by.”Baker said that all of the lifeguards employed by the park board are trained by the Red Cross to recognize and respond to the signs of the Instinctive Drowning Response, as well as how to prevent these situations from happening. The park board also provides swim lessons for kids. For KSMU news, I’m Samuel Crowe.