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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Eamonn Farrell
water safety

Water Safety in Ireland: 'Our initial reaction is to gasp, don't use up that energy'

The RNLI and the Department of Transport are appealing for people to be conscious of water safety this weekend.

RNLI VOLUNTEER DAMIEN Payne says he’d always rather attend an emergency call-out that turns out to be a false alarm than be too late to reach someone who’s gotten into difficulty. 

“I would always encourage people to call it in. It may not be that rough, the conditions mightn’t be bad, the sun could be splitting the stones but the water conditions could be very challenging,” says Payne, who volunteers with the RNLI in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. 

As the Bank Holiday approaches, the RNLI and the Department of Transport are appealing for people to be conscious of water safety after seven people drowned in Ireland in recent weeks.

The Department has identified three key safety areas people should be aware of – inflatables should never be used on beaches or waterways, swimmers should never enter the water alone, and jet skiers should steer clear of bathing areas where people swim. 

But there are other practical tips people should take on board, says Payne. 

Float to live

One of them is being aware of the impact of cold water on our bodies. “Many people get into difficulty in the water having not intentionally gone into the water so if they fall in you could feel the effect of cold water shock,” he says. 

“You could be the best swimmer in the world but what you’re trying to do is keep your core warm…which eventually renders your limbs useless.

“It can have a dramatic effect on you and we’ve seen that in some of the most experienced open water swimmers,” said Payne, adding that a person should lie on their back and spread their arms and legs, gently moving them to keep afloat until their breath returns. 

“People may think ‘oh well it’s easy to say just float and stay calm’ but it’s been proven to save lives,” Payne said. 

“Our initial reaction is to gasp and that gasp can result in an intake of water…and that gasping and struggling does not allow your body to calm down and regulate itself….don’t use up that energy, make yourself as big as possible and float.”

As the summer rolls on and sea-swimming becomes more and more attractive to people in Ireland, Payne says that it’s never been so important to be water safety conscious. 

And that includes being aware of the signs of drowning – in open and inland water and in swimming pools. 

It doesn’t look like drowning

A 2013 Slate article about the Instinctive Drowning Response noted that people’s response when drowning “does not look like most people expect”. 

Instead there is little splashing, no waving and no calls for help because people who drown are unable to use their respiratory system to call out. 

“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,” a study referenced in the article notes. 

Similarly drowning people cannot wave for help as 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.”

The study is backed up by research carried out in 2020 by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health which found that “most of the time the initial moment of drowning is missed.”

Although each year at least 372,000 people die by drowning, it is a neglected issue, the study notes. Last year, 76 people drowned in Ireland. 

The research involved observing CCTV footage of 24 drownings and suggests that there is at most two minutes to identify and recognise when a person is drowning. 

“No person was observed to wave or shout for help. Other studies have also suggested that waving and shouting for help does not occur during life-threatening drowning events.

“The loss of buoyancy during exhalation of air while screaming, and stopping supportive arm movements while raising one or both arms, both impede swimming and floating,” according to the research. 

Cork County Council / YouTube

Because drowning doesn’t look like drowning, it is all the more important to avoid reaching that point.

If a person is crying out for help or thrashing in the water it doesn’t mean they’re not in difficulty. 

Water Safety Ireland has outlined a number of safety tips for swimming pools, open water and inland waterways and lakes which can be found here

For parents, Payne says it is crucial they stay close to their children when in the water.

“They can drown in a very small body of water, and even on a beach there is always the risk of rip currents,” he said. 

“Our advice would always be to never, ever bring an inflatable and always keep an eye on your children, but also keep an eye on the time spent in the water so they’re not getting too cold,” said Payne. 

Meanwhile, more and more people in Ireland are getting into swimming, says Payne, “so people really need to be very conscious”. 

“It’s great to see more people using the water but not everyone may be familiar with the water, the impact of currents and cold water, but also how visible they are.”

Never swim alone, ideally wear a brightly coloured swimming hat and swim parallel to the shore. It’s important that you’re visible and can be seen.
If you do see someone in difficulty or drowning, here are steps you can take without risking you’re own life:
  • Keep alert – Don’t expect a person to be shouting for help. If you’re not sure, shout: ‘Do you need help?’ If they say yes or don’t answer at all, it’s time to act.
  • Do not be tempted to go into the water yourself. 
  • Call 999 – Call the emergency services before you do anything else, so help will be on its way.
  • Shout and signal – Shout and encourage them to stay calm and float. Remind them to kick their legs gently.
  • Find a rescue aid – If there is a lifering, throw bag (filled with rope), or other public rescue aid equipment nearby, quickly read any instructions then throw it to the person. 
  • Safe rescue – Before you pull the casualty in, get down on one knee or lie down so you don’t fall in. Keep sight of the person to help the emergency services locate them quicker.

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