Recognition of Emergency Situations



Drowning accidents happen suddenly and, generally, unexpectedly. A trained rescuer, because he/she is alert to danger, will recognise a potentially dangerous situation at an early stage of development such as:

  • A swimmer making little or no headway against the current.
  • A bather submerging and surfacing repeatedly.
  • An air bed and its occupant drifting away from land.
  • A swimmer chasing a float or ball out to sea.
  • A person stranded on a sand bar.

Subject Recognition

While people in difficulty in the water may not always display a  specific behviour pattern, there a re some common characteristics which rescuers should learn to recognise in order to assess quickly that help is required.

The Poor (Weak) Swimmer

  • The subject may try to attract attention by waving an arm or hand and by calling for help.
  • As the arms and legs are usually being used to keep the body afloat, the victim is seen to be at an angle rather than vertical in the water.
  • The subject’s head may submerge from time to time, in the struggle to stay afloat.
  • In open water, the subject, in attempting to reach safety, usually manages to turn towards shore.

Once a swimmer, however weak, realises that help has arrived, he will usually calm down and co-operate with the rescuer.

The Non-Swimmer

This subject has one main concern – to maintain his/her supply of air.

  • The non-swimmer is usually vertical in the water.
  • His/her arm motions are vigorous but the hands do not come very far above the surface. He/she seldom waves.
  • The subject’s head is usually stretched back in order to keep the mouth and nose uppermost. He/she seldom calls for help.
  • Panic is evident in the wide-open eyes.
  • Arm motions slow down as the effort becomes too much.

The poor swimmer may display similar symptoms, as exhaustion becomes a factor. The non-swimmer cannot be expected to respond to instruction and will probably be totally unaware that help is near.

In a small percentage of cases, non-swimming subjects do not make any effort to help themselves but rather sink and disappear from view without a sound or a struggle.

The Unconscious Subject

This subject is completely limp in the water. He/she may be:

  • Face down on the surface.
  • Lying on the bottom.
  • At any point between the surface and the bottom.

If the unconscious subject is wearing a life jacket, it will keep his/her face clear of the water.

The Injured Subject

  • This subject may appear to be a poor swimmer and may exhibit similar charateristics.
  • He/she may grasp above or below the site of the injury in an effort to soothe the pain or immobilize the muscle.

Drowning: The Silent Killer

Frank Pia (1974), in his journal ‘Observations on the drowning of non-swimmers‘, contradicted the prevailing notions at the time that most victims struggle at the water’s surface, call or wave for help, and actively attack rescuers. He showed that a person struggling and about to drown cannot usually call for help.

We’ve all seen people flailing about and screaming while drowning in movies or on TV. Yet, the reality is someone could be drowning a few feet away from you and you would never know it, because it doesn’t sound like anything.

“When people are drowning, all of their energy is going into trying to breathe and staying above water”
– Shelley Dalke, Canadian Red Cross


Swift recognition of a potential drowning situation is an important lifesaving skill. Training and experience can help develop it.