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What to do if you see someone drowning: An experienced lifeguard’s advice to good Samaritans

Lifeguards watched over Pleasure Bay Beach in South Boston.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

Tragic stories of drownings this year have been unrelenting. Massachusetts, the region, and the nation in general are seeing higher numbers of deaths in the water this year than in the past, with 18 recorded in the state in May alone.

“We are looking probably at record drownings over previous years,” said B.J. Fisher, a trained lifeguard of nearly 50 years and director of health and safety at the American Lifeguard Association, which has trained more than 250,000 individuals.

Over the past 20 years, the number of drowning deaths nationwide has been steadily declining from about 5,000 people a year to closer to 3,500. But last year and this year, the numbers have been rising again, which Fisher, and other experts, have attributed to a shortage of lifeguards, canceled swimming lessons due to the pandemic, and an early start to summer weather.

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Some of those deaths have involved a second person trying to rescue someone drowning. Worcester Police Officer Enmanuel “Manny” Familia, 38, died on June 4 in an unsuccessful attempt to save 14-year-old Troy Love. In Rhode Island on June 20, Valentin Cardona Sanchez, 35, died trying to save 10-year-old Yoskarly Martinez, whose body was found a day later.

These cases underscore how important it is for good Samaritans to avoid jumping into the water to rescue a drowning person at all costs, Fisher said.

So, what should you do if you see someone struggling in the water? We asked Fisher for his advice on how best to help.

When someone is drowning, our first instinct might be to jump in the water to save them. Why is this dangerous?

The individual that’s struggling, they have no common sense. It’s a panic. They’re looking for just one more breath of air, and they’ll grab hold of anything that comes near them, and hang on to it until they take it under. It’s adrenaline.

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I remember a personal experience. Here I am, a lifeguard at a pool, and I see a child struggling in just three or four feet of water. Well, I don’t take the ring buoy and throw it out to them, [which is] the first thing they teach the lifeguard [to do]. I don’t take my rescue tube and push it out to them. No, I just go out to grab them. And they got hold of my head, and I almost lost an eye.

I could not believe how strong this 9-year-old was. If that was in deep water, and the amount of pressure that he caused on my eyes, I myself might panic.

There have even been policemen and firefighters who have drowned trying to save someone in the water and not realizing the strength that an individual has who is drowning.

Never go [in the water to save someone] unless you are trained in life-saving techniques. Because they will most likely take you down. And if you do go out, if you are trained, you should always bring a flotation device with you. Double drownings, it’s very common.

So, what should you do if you see someone drowning?

If you’re in a guarded area, try to bring it to the attention of the lifeguard right away. Do not attempt an actual save yourself in the water.

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But you can always try to reach out to them, or throw something to them, or row out to them in a rowboat. There’s always been a saying, “Reach, throw, row, but never go.”

When you reach out to a victim, keep low your center of gravity, bend your knees, maybe even lay on the deck of a pool or the shore. Preferably, don’t reach them with your hand. Grab a towel or a shirt, something that you’re reaching out to them with that if they do aggressively grab it, you can let go of it. It’s not uncommon to have someone reach out to the drowning victim and they get pulled in.

Throw objects. It could be a ring buoy, flotation device, a raft. The proper way to throw a ring buoy is it’s supposed to be connected to a line of rope. You never throw it directly to the victim because you could knock them unconscious or break their neck, because they don’t see it coming, they’re panicking.

Throw the ring buoy past them, and let the rope fall within their grasp, and then start pulling the ring buoy in, hand over hand, low center of gravity, so when they grab hold of that line, they don’t pull you in. If you did a great throw, that ring buoy nudges them from behind. They eventually grab the ring buoy and you tell them to hang on, and you pull them to shore.

What happens if someone has already gone underwater?

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If you’re not trained, you should not go out.

So there’s your good Samaritan, you have someone you saved that is passive, they’re under the water, they’re unconscious. You go in thinking that they’re not a threat. You go in, you grab them, you pull them to the surface, and all of a sudden, they come back conscious, and you have a struggling case on your hands and you do not have your rescue equipment. A near impossible case unless you’re really trained.

How do trained lifeguards handle a situation like that?

Always try to push something out to them. Never come in contact. But if you do, always approach your victim from the rear, never face to face.

Lifeguards are taught that if you are grabbed by the victim, take a deep breath of air and tuck your chin down, and then take the victim with you under the water. By you taking the breath of air, you’re going to have more air than they have. With you tucking your chin, they’re less likely to get up underneath you, with their arms around your neck. And by you taking them under, they’re more likely to release you, because the only reason they grabbed you was it was keeping them on the surface. Then come around behind them, and then try to save again.

But if a good Samaritan doesn’t know this, what’s going to happen is many double drownings.

How can people be better prepared for the water?

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Come to a guarded area, preferably.

Look to see where there’s any safety equipment. All pools are required to have shepherd’s crooks and ring buoys, and most waterfronts will have ring buoys available for good Samaritans.

Know your address. It’s not uncommon that people would say [after calling 911], “I’m on the beach.” Where?

Never swim alone.

Have a list of your medications that you’re taking. Knowing what medication you’re taking is a tremendous benefit to the medical care that you’ll be receiving.

Have a designated water-watcher. Somebody that’s in your group and their sole purpose is to watch the kids in the water and around the water.

What are some other things people should be aware of?

There is a concern nowadays of dry drowning. It’s where kids do take a lot of water into their lungs and they actually end up drowning later that night. What happens is a parent or good Samaritan, they grab the child, coughs up some water, they think the child is fine. And then later that night, they’re dry drowning.

So, in a situation that you have a near drowning, they always recommend the victim should be checked out by the hospital.

What does it feel like to be able to save someone’s life?

Rewarding, to have only just a few minutes of your life make a difference to somebody.

[One person] came back and thanked me for his life. He thanked me for what I had given his kids, because he was not a good father the first time in life. But because I gave him a second chance, he’s going to make it up to them.

I never realized that when you do take a moment and try to save someone, that you’re saving a family, a relationship, not only a victim.


Sahar Fatima can be reached at sahar.fatima@globe.com Follow her @sahar_fatima.