We've all been conditioned to believe that a drowning person will flail about, scream out, and otherwise draw attention to themselves so they can be helped. On the surface that would seem to make sense, if we were stuck out in a lake or struggling in the deep end of a big pool we'd certainly make a scene to get some help. Except drowning doesn't look like the dramatized version you see in movies. Drowning in real life is so undramatic that 10% of accidental drownings happen within 25 yards or less of people who could have helped. The following guide to recognizing Instinctive Drowning Response is excerpted from On Scene (Fall 2006), the journal of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.Drowning people's mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people's mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water's surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people's bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.
Before a person has reached the involuntary stages of drowning they may call out for help because they are in what is known as "aquatic distress" and still have enough energy and oxygen to move about. Not all people use that brief period where they are distressed but not actually drowning yet to call for help, however, and many move quickly from distress to drowning without so much as a yell. Just because a person looks OK doesn't mean they aren't about to slip under. Keep a close eye on children and if you call out to your buddy off the dock and he doesn't respond don't assume he's just treading water.