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Swim, have fun ... but remember safety rules


Every year there are news stories about the dangers of swimming, yet people drop their guard and accidents happen.

A number of recent drownings and near-drownings in Michigan have prompted renewed warnings about water safety.

Laura Rowen is with the Michigan Department of Community Health. She says parents must never be distracted when their kids are at a pool or on the beach.

"They have to put the cell phone down, the iPad down, and keep an eye on their kids while they're in the water," Rowen says.

Rowen says relying on life vests or other flotation devices isn't a good plan.

"Those things are there as an aid, certainly, but they can fail," she says.

When should children learn to swim?

Rowen says they can begin a structured program as early as six months and preferably before the child is eight.

"You want to instill skill and a certain degree of competence," she says. "But just like swimming aids for young kids, parents should not rely exclusively on the idea that their young child seems to be managing independently in water that's over their head. They still need to be vigilant."

Rowen says even strong swimmers can fall victim to swift currents and the unpredictability of open water.

"The water depths can change," she cautions. "People think they're on a sand bar, and all of a sudden they step off of it."

As a recent article by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D in the U.S. Coast Guard's On Scene Magazine points out, drowning doesn't always look like drowning.

Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. 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. Drowning people cannot wave for help. 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. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Hypothermia can also be a problem in the cold water of the Great Lakes.

An eight-year-old Ann Arbor boy died Monday when the canoe in which he was riding with his father was overturned by a wave on Lake Michigan. He was wearing a life vest, but the boy died from exposure. His father survived, but is suffering from hypothermia.

For more information about water and boating safety, visit www.safekids.org.