Most families plan to swim in areas without lifeguards this summer, but lack basic water safety knowledge
WASHINGTON, Thursday, May 16, 2013 — Even though nearly two-thirds of families with small children plan on swimming in areas without lifeguards this summer, many people don’t know the right thing to do in water emergencies or how to keep their loved ones safe in the water, according to a new American Red Cross poll.
“We’re going into the summer months when people will head to the beaches, rivers and lakes and will spend more time by the pool, and people of all ages need to know what to do in emergencies as well as day-to-day water safety rules,” said Peter G. Wernicki, MD, who is a member of the Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and the chair of its Aquatics Sub-Council.
The Red Cross poll found 63 percent of families with children plan on swimming in an area without a lifeguard this summer. However, nearly half of those polled had never taken swimming lessons, with African-Americans (32 percent) less likely to have received formal training.
The survey findings show that people mistakenly believe some steps such as having a swimming buddy or flotation device will keep them safe. For example, while the Red Cross recommends that people always swim with a buddy in designated swimming areas supervised by lifeguards, buddies alone are not enough to keep swimmers safe.
Two thirds (67%) of those asked mistakenly believe that putting inflatable arm bands, or “water wings,” on children is enough to keep them safe when an adult is not nearby. These are not lifesaving devices, and children and weak/inexperienced swimmers should wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets while remaining under constant adult supervision.
Nearly half of Americans say they have had an experience where they were afraid they would drown, according to the findings. Hispanics reported a higher percentage (66%) of having such an experience over Whites (46%). Overall, four in 10 (41%) say they know someone who was in danger of drowning, which is an increase of 16 percentage points from a similar 2009 Red Cross survey.
Another concerning finding in the 2013 Red Cross survey was that most of those polled were unsure of the right steps to take when someone appears to be in distress in the water: More than nine in 10 (93%) people were unable to identify the correct order of actions to take to help a swimmer who may be in danger of drowning.
“If you see a swimmer in distress, you should: shout for help, reach or throw the person a rescue or flotation device and tell them to grab it; then call 9-1-1 if needed,” Wernicki said. “An emergency can happen to anyone in or around the water—regardless of swimming ability. A person may scream or splash, but quite often people who are in trouble in the water cannot or do not call out for help. They spend their energy trying to keep their head above water to get a breath.”
Other signs of a swimmer in trouble include:
  • Treading water and waving an arm

  • Doggie paddling with no forward progress

  • Hanging onto a safety line

  • Floating on their back and waving their arms

  • Arms extended side or front, pressing down for support, but making no forward progress

  • Positioned vertically in the water, but not kicking legs

  • Underwater for more than 30 seconds

  • Floating at surface, face-down, for more than 30 seconds

  • “We’re concerned with the finding that three in five people mistakenly believe they should enter the water and rescue the distressed swimmer,” Wernicki said. “This is a dangerous course of action that risks the life of the rescuer.
    “Given that so many people have had an experience where they were in danger of drowning or don’t know what to do if they get into trouble near water, these survey findings demonstrate the critical importance of swim lessons and training in water safety,” he added.
    Red Cross swimming lessons help people develop skills and water safety behaviors that help people be more comfortable and safe when they are in, on and around the water. The Red Cross encourages all household members to enroll in age-appropriate water orientation and Learn-to-Swim programs. To find classes for your family, contact your local aquatic facility and ask for American Red Cross swimming programs.
    An infographic highlighting survey results has been developed. People can find additional water safety information at
    Survey details: Telephone survey of 1,011 U.S. Adults 18 years and older on April 11-14, 2013 conducted in ORC International’s CARAVAN® survey using a landline-cell dual-frame sampling design. Margin of error is +/- 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. For comparison, this report includes findings from a 2009 Water Safety Poll–Telephone survey of 1,002 U.S. Adults 18 years and older on March 20-23, 2009 conducted by ORC International’s CARAVAN®. Margin of error is +/- 3.1 percent at the 95% confidence level.
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