“It doesn’t make any difference … whether you are in a pool, or the ocean. It only takes a matter of seconds.”
The frustration is evident in the voice of Fenwick Island Beach Patrol Captain Tim Ferry, in speaking about water safety and accidental injuries and drowning. The mantra is drilled into the heads of beach-and pool-goers every summer and yet, it seems, tragedy still strikes.
While both can be potentially dangerous in their own right, Ferry did say there are major differences, and often times the differences can cause people to have a more lenient attitude toward the pool.
“[Ocean lifeguards] are constantly looking and listening and noticing the clothes people are wearing, and watching throughout the day, and in the pool, too many times things get taken for granted because you are in such a controlled area,” he said. “Parents give the benefit of the doubt. And you can have the signs, and ladders and numbers telling you how deep the water is and all that does nothing for a 3-year-old that sees the ladder and goes in and all of a sudden can’t touch anymore.
“Even though the signs are there etc. you have to pay attention to the basic safety rules, know where children are at all times. Lifeguards are not babysitters.”
Ferry said they teach those very differences in their Junior Lifeguard training. For instance, the pool has no waves, they have ladders, the water is clear and if there is to be no diving, often signs are posted. The ocean, on the other hand, has waves, has currents, and swimmers don’t ever really know how deep the water is.
More importantly, both come with responsibilities of the swimmer.
The American Red Cross offers swimmers safety tips and responsibilities: number one being learn to swim. Also, swim in supervised areas only, obey all rules and posted signs, stay within the designated swimming area, never swim alone, check surf conditions before entering the water, make sure you always have enough energy to swim back to shore, and don’t try to swim against a current if caught in one.
Also, they recommend not mixing alcohol and swimming, paying attention to local weather conditions and forecasts, never leaving a child unobserved around water, learning Red Cross CPR, watching out for the “dangerous too’s”: too tired, too cold, too far from safety too much sun, too much strenuous activity, and knowing how to prevent, recognize and respond to emergencies.
Laura West of the American Red Cross of the Delmarva Peninsula stresses the importance of learning how to swim and how to recognize emergencies. She said they offer instruction for people on all ability levels.
“We offer swimming lessons all the way from somebody who doesn’t know how to swim to someone that wants to define their stroke technique because they are on a swim team,” said West.
She added that the Red Cross has authorized providers all over the peninsula and they teach specialty aquatic courses, learn to swim courses as well as water safety.
As far as ocean safety, Ferry said the education component is improving, but there is always room for improvement.
“The public education part has gotten so much better,” explained Ferry. “Still, too many people make assumptions about their own abilities and underestimate what the ocean can and can not do.”
The ocean, unlike a pool, leaves a lot of room for error and one of the hardest and most important things for ocean lifeguards is victim identification, he said, so swimmer responsibility really comes into play.
He added that for on the beach, one of the best things people can do besides swimming near a lifeguard and not swimming alone, is checking for depth.
“Year after year, we see it, people running and diving in the ocean” he said. “And I wish I had a wand to stop them. People need to look at the tides and often have no idea about depth.” He added that running and diving in, without taking the time to check for depth or easing into the water, causes “as much injury [neck, back, shoulder] as people getting slammed by waves. You don’t want to check depth with your head by running and diving in. We’ve seen it too many times.”
In addition to the dangers of diving before knowing the depth of the water, the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) warns against the dangers of rip currents. According to the USLA, 80 percent of USLA affiliated lifeguard rescues are because of rip currents.
If caught in a rip current, they offer these tips:
• Don’t fight it by trying to swim directly to shore. Swim parallel to shore until the current relaxes, then swim to shore.
• Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
• Never fight against the current.
• Think of the rip current like a treadmill that cannot be turned off. Your attempt to get out is like stepping to the side of the moving belt of the treadmill.
• Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim at an angle - away from the current - towards shore.
• If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
• If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arm and yelling for help.
Another water condition they say to be aware of is shore break, which occurs when the waves crash in shallow water close to the shoreline.
To protect the head, neck and back, remember the following tips:
• Avoid diving under the waves in shallow water.
• Avoid standing with your back to the waves.
• Avoid bodysurfing or body boarding straight into the beach or “over the falls.” Instead, ride the shoulder of the wave parallel to the shoreline.
• When in doubt, don’t dive or ride, play it safe.
For people with home pools and hot tubs, the American Red Cross reminds that home pool drowning is the leading cause of death for children under five years old, and the second cause of unintentional injury related death for children ages one to 14. Often children were out of sight for less than five minutes and under the care of one or both parents at the time of the drowning. They also add that anyone watching children around water must understand that drowning happens quickly and suddenly and any source of water is a potential drowning hazard.
For information on swimming lessons, or home pool and hot tub safety, visit redcross.org. For more information on how to avoid injuries at the beach, http://www.usla.org/beach_safety/spinal_injury1.asp.