Drowning risks in cold water

A person falling backwards into cold dark water

It’s easy to assume that drowning is an issue that is really only a major risk in summer, when we spend a lot of time in and around the water, but statistics show that on average around half of WA’s fatal drownings happen in the cooler months of autumn and winter.

When someone falls into cold water the risk of drowning is heightened for a number of reasons. The extreme effects of cold water on the body can almost paralyse us, as the body’s initial shock response causes hyperventilation, hyperthermia and an increase in metabolism (which means you rapidly use more energy in a non-active state).

It is well established that the cooling rate of the body core in cold water depends, in part, on body size, mass, and amount of body fat. Thus, when several victims are in cold water, priority should be given to protect the smallest and leanest individuals, such as helping them raise as much of their bodies out of the water as possible.

Similarly, when a group of hypothermia victims are rescued, the smallest and leanest patients should be evaluated first because they are likely to have the greatest degree of hypothermia. Although body mass greatly affects the rate of core cooling, it has less effect on manual performance.

So how can you best help a person who is drowning in cold water?

Here are a few steps you should take when it comes to performing a cold water rescue.

  • The key factor in a rescue is self-preservation. Always take care of your own safety and don’t put yourself in danger.
  • Shout for assistance and phone emergency services on 000.
  • Talk to the person you are rescuing, reassure them and signal for assistance.
  • Try to reach them from the land by lying chest down on the ground, reach out with a solid object such as a branch, post or umbrella.
  • Throw a buoyant aid such as a lifejacket or a rescue ring.
  • If you do need to enter the water use a PFD (personal floatation device) where possible.

Learn more about rescue safety at the link below.

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