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July 4, 2022

The drowning numbers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are shocking. An estimated 3,960 fatal unintentional drownings happen every year in the United States (including boating incidents). That is an average of 11 drowning deaths per day.

Crowds flock to the sea and sand of South Beach in Miami. Florida is No. 4 in drowning deaths per 100,000 people in the United States. It's important to understand how to enjoy open water safely.

From 2015 to 2019, the states with the most drowning deaths per 100,000 people were:
1. Alaska
2. Hawaii
3. Louisiana
4. Florida
5. Mississippi

World statistics are even more shocking. There are an estimated 236,000 annual drowning deaths worldwide, according to the UN's World Health Organization. That comes out to an average of 647 people per day.

And then there are the even more numerous nonfatal drownings. The CDC says people who survive a drowning incident have a range of outcomes: "From no injuries to very serious injuries or permanent disability."

The tragedy is many of these deaths and injuries are preventable, experts say. What can you do to enjoy the water -- be it ocean, river, lake or swimming pool -- safely and not join the ranks of drowning deaths? Turns out, a lot.

Who is most at risk?

Knowing who is more likely to drown is critical. At-risk groups need the most attention. Some of them in the United States are:

• The youngest people: Children 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates, the CDC says, mostly in swimming pools.

• Males: They account for nearly 80% of fatal drownings. More risk-taking behaviors and alcohol use are cited as reasons. Across the world, WHO reports males have twice the fatal drowning rate of females.

• Minority groups: Fatal drowning rates for American Indian or Alaska Native people 29 and younger are two times higher than for White people. For Black people, the rate is 1.5 times higher than for White people.

Drowning prevention tips

The CDC emphasizes the importance of learning basic water safety skills, saying formal lessons can reduce the risk of drowning.

However, "children who have had swimming lessons still need close and constant supervision when in or around water," the agency writes. Don't get distracted by TV, books or the phone when watching children in the water.

If you're drinking alcoholic beverages, stay out of the water and don't go boating. Impaired judgment and slow reactions can lead to tragedy.

People in boats and weaker swimmers, especially in open water, should wear life jackets.
And keep an eye on the weather. Exit if there's a thunderstorm or heavy rains.

Know the water environments 

Understand the waters you're about to enter. Different bodies of water carry different types of dangers.

These currents flow away from shore. They often form at breaks in sandbars and close to piers and rock groins. Look for signs of a rip current before entering, says the United States Lifesaving Association.

That can be "a narrow gap of darker, seemingly calmer water between areas of breaking waves and whitewater," a difference in water color or "a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving seaward."

Here's what to do you're caught in one:

• Stay calm. Rip currents don't pull you underwater but do sweep you farther from shore.

• Don't swim against the current. Try to escape by "swimming out of the current in a direction following the shoreline," the USLA says. You may be able to escape by floating or treading water and ride the current out.

• If you're in trouble, yell and wave for help.

If you're not trained, don't try to rescue people yourself. Seek a lifeguard, call 911 or throw a flotation device their way. Direct the person to swim parallel to the shoreline to escape.

The National Weather Service warns swimmers to watch out for "shorebreak" waves. They crash directly onto the sand and can batter and disorient swimmers. "When in doubt, don't go out," said Wyatt Werneth, who is also the public service spokesperson for the American Lifeguard Association.

Swim Guide and Swim Ireland advise people to swim in the hour before or the hour after low tide or high tide when waters are generally calmer. (But conditions can vary beach to beach).

Tubing and other activities are popular in rivers. But swift currents and obstacles below the surface or debris can be hazardous.

Werneth said research the river before you enter.

Personal watercraft hug the shoreline at Blue Marsh Lake near Reading, Pennsylvania. In that state, you need a Boating Safety Education Certificate in your possession to operate one. The US Coast Guard says you should wear torso-protecting life jackets while riding one. Also, don't jump wakes and don't drink alcohol before operating.

The placid waters of lakes and ponds can lull waders and swimmers into a false sense of security. Sharp, sudden dropoffs and debris under the water can startle or entangle people, Werneth said, leading to panic and drowning. He said go in with a swim buddy.

Dive only in designated areas. The USLA says enter unknown waters feet first to avoid striking your head. Swimmers shouldn't stray into areas where personal watercraft and boats are speeding by.

The National Drowing Prevention Alliance has this advice for pool owners: "four-sided fencing with self-closing self-latching gates, door and window alarms, and safety covers can help make sure kids don't get to the water unsupervised."

And even if your children know how to swim, adults should still maintain a careful watch. Keep flotation devices on hand.

National lifeguard shortage

Bernard Fisher, director of health and safety at the American Lifeguard Association, warned of a critical lifeguard shortage this summer.

Werneth said the group's message has always been "swim in front of a lifeguard." But he said the reality of the shortage is prompting a new one: "Learn to swim, America." "We want people to self-lifeguard. Assign someone in your family to be a water watcher. Have that person learn CPR."

And if someone can't swim and still wants to wade, "put a life jacket on them. That's going to make a difference."
In the end, you need "water confidence," gained by experience and respect for the water.

"The fear is what generates the panic which generates the drowning."