Would you be able to tell when someone is drowning? Experts offer water-safety tips

Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff

Would you be able to recognize when someone is drowning?

A cluster of apparent drownings across Massachusetts in recent days has public health experts concerned that people may not be able to identify when a swimmer is in trouble.

At least nine people have died from apparent drownings around the state since the end of June. Experts warn that people can drown in as little as 30 seconds, so quick action is crucial.


“What we see on TV and in the movies of people splashing around and flailing their arms, it’s fictitious,” said Jeff Hall, a spokesman for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts.

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“Drowning is usually silent, and trained lifeguards know that,” Hall said. “They know to look for people who have a look of panic on their face and are barely able to keep their heads above water.”

For those of us who are not trained lifeguards, here are some guidelines on how you and your loved ones can enjoy the water safely this summer:

First off, make sure you are safe in the water before you ever venture in. The Red Cross emphasizes the importance of “learning to save your own life in the water.” Before wading into any body of water, test yourself to see if you’re water competent.

Water competency checklist

Can you comfortably step into water that is over your head?


Can you tread water or float for one minute?

If you spin around in a circle, would you be able to find your way out?

Can you swim for at least 25 yards?

Are you able to get out of the water without a ladder?

Second, you’ve heard of a designated driver. In aquatic settings, it’s important to have a designated watcher.


Kevin Whalen, the director of aquatics at the Department of Conservation and Recreation of Massachusetts, said that when a large group is spending time around a pool, pond, or other waterfront location, it’s necessary to make sure that one person is dedicated to watching people in the water at all times.

“If everyone is responsible then no one is responsible,” said Whalen.

Jeremy Stiles, senior director of aquatics at YMCA of Greater Boston, said if you think someone might be drowning, point it out immediately to a lifeguard.

“Often these drownings can become tragic because people extend themselves past their abilities and end up with a multi-victim scenario,” said Stiles.

Basic swimming rules

Never swim alone and always let someone else know when you’re going swimming.

Swim inside of a life-guarded area whenever possible.

Be careful not to overextend yourself and be aware of your abilities.

When in doubt, don’t panic. “The moment you begin to panic, all common sense goes out the window,” Stiles said. “Try and get your airway above the water. Assess the situation and start moving towards safety as quickly as possible.”

Sophia Eppolito can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @SophiaEppolito.