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How to respond to a drowning incident

Share these resources with your community members so they are better prepared to prevent and respond to drowning incidents


While children are at a particularly high risk, anyone of any age can drown and in a variety of situations.


On average, 11 drowning deaths occur every day in the United States, based on 2010-2019 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Drowning also is the second most common cause of death for children ages 1-4.

While children are at a particularly high risk, anyone of any age can drown and in a variety of situations. Not only must first responders prepare to respond to drowning incidents, they should also help prepare their community members to prevent such incidents in the first place.

Review the following information from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website, the CDC, the Red Cross, the Seminole County (Florida) Fire Department and Water Smart Broward (a countywide drowning prevention initiative in Florida), and share these resources with your community.

Recognize the signs of a drowning victim

A key step is recognizing the signs of a drowning victim. Some signs a swimmer is in trouble:

  • They are not making forward progress in the water;
  • They are vertical in the water but appear unable to move or tread water;
  • They are pressing down with their arms to try to push their head above the water; and/or
  • They are motionless.

What to do if you witness a drowning incident

Follow these steps if you believe you’re witnessing a drowning incident:

  1. Alert a lifeguard if one is present.
  2. Remove the person from the water without endangering yourself.
  3. If someone else is nearby, ask them to call 911 while you rescue the swimmer. If you know CPR and no one else is there, provide 2 minutes of CPR, then call 911. If you do not know CPR, call 911 immediately, and a call-taker will talk you through performing CPR.
  4. Begin rescue breathing and CPR.
  5. Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) if needed and if one is available.
  6. Transfer care of the patient to EMS providers when they arrive.

How to prevent drowning incidents

There are many ways to prevent drowning incidents. Share these valuable tips with your community.

Supervise children: Do not leave children unattended in or near water. Make sure a responsible adult is providing distraction-free supervision. recommends that parents and other caregivers designate a “water watcher,” even if a lifeguard is present. Lifeguards, after all, may not be able to see an entire swimming area all the time. Note: Children who have had swimming lesson still need to be watched.

Learn to swim: It’s fun, it’s good exercise, and you might save a life by avoiding danger. Plus, enroll children in lessons. Free or low-cost lessons may be available through your local parks and recreation department or the YMCA.

Avoid drains: Teach kids that drains and suction openings are not play areas and to stay away.

Do not enter a pool or spa with a loose, broken or missing drain cover. Children’s hair and clothes can get stuck in a drain or suction outlet. Even an adult can be trapped by powerful suction from a drain.

Public spas and pools are required to have drain gates or covers that meet safety standards. If you own a pool, take steps to ensure that you have covers or gates securely in place.

Maintain barriers: Barriers save lives. That includes fences, locks on doors or gates, self-latching and self-closing gates, pool and spa covers, and alarms. Install them and maintain them.

A fence should be at least 4 feet high and should surround the pool or spa on all sides. It should not be climbable. drownTeach kids to never climb over a pool fence or gate.

The Seminole County Fire Department reminds everyone via a news release that covers should be professional quality and fitted to the pool or spa. Something thrown over a pool such as a piece of canvas, can be a drowning hazard and could trap a child.

Don’t tempt: Children can be tempted to enter the pool for a variety of reasons. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers advice on pool barriers, including keeping toys out of the pool area when no one is using it. Further, inflatable pools should be emptied after every use.

Know CPR: Learn how to perform CPR, and keep your certification current. Bystanders often are the first people to aid a drowning person before EMS providers arrive. To find CPR classes, check with local hospitals and community centers, the American Heart Association and/or the American Red Cross.

Avoid alcohol: Avoid drinking alcohol before and during swimming, boating or other water activities, such as floating down a river. Alcohol impairs balance, coordination and judgment. Alcohol also makes it harder to supervise children.

Buddy up: The CDC recommends the buddy system for people with seizure disorders or other medical conditions that can put a person at higher risk of drowning.

Don’t hold your breath: Do not hyperventilate before swimming underwater or hold your breath for a long time once underwater. Holding your breath for a long time can make a person pass out and drown.

Wear life jackets: Wear a life jacket when you go boating. The CDC suggests putting life jackets on children any time they are around natural water. Similarly, weaker swimmers of all ages can benefit from a life jacket in any body of water. Note: Air-filled toys and foam toys do not count as safety devices.

Take additional health precautions: If you have a seizure disorder or are swimming with someone who does, have one-on-one supervision. Other medical conditions, including autism and heart conditions, are also associated with a higher risk of drowning. Supervision is critical in these cases. In addition, some medications can have a side effect of impaired balance, coordination or judgment, so be careful when engaging in water-based activities.

Share these tips to help keep your loved ones and community safe!

Learn more

6 tips for drowning prevention and response

First responders can use their status as respected community figures to reduce the risk for drowning

Additional resources

  • Drowning Facts – CDC
  • Safety Tips –
  • Water Safety – Red Cross
  • Water Smart Broward
  • Pool Dangers and Drowning Prevention – American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Drowning: The danger of dihydrogen oxide

Leila Merrill served as an assistant editor for FireRescue1 and EMS1. Merrill has worked as a writer, editor, copy editor, digital producer, journalist and communications professional for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle and other companies. She double-majored in English and communications at Trinity University.