From diving to distress signals: Swim safety tips you should know

We asked the Canadian Red Cross to weigh in to help us have a happy, healthy time in the water.

We asked the Canadian Red Cross to weigh in to help us have a happy, healthy time in the water

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Whether you're swimming, playing or just floating around, as enjoyable as the water can be, it can pose some serious risks. 

Here are some stats from the 2018 Canadian Drowning Report:

  • In 2015, there were 423 unintentional water-related deaths in Canadian waters.
  • From 2011-2015, water-related deaths were most common amongst seniors (65 and older) and young adults (20-34).
  • Though drowning deaths occur at all times of year, 60% happen from May to September and July alone makes up for 20%.
  • Most drowning deaths in Canada occur in natural bodies of water.
  • Seniors and young children are most vulnerable to drowning in artificial waters.
  • Of those that occurred in pools, 87% were in private pools.
  • 40% of swimming-related deaths involved weak or non-swimmers

We floated our swim safety FAQ's to Gail Botten, Advisor to Program Development for the Canadian Red Cross to help us all get ready to take the plunge more safely this summer.

Swimming safety FAQs

What's a general water safety course that everyone can take?

Enrol in a Red Cross Swim program. Learning water safety, such as how to prepare for an emergency, and what to do if one should occur, is key to preventing an emergency in or on the water. It's swimming skills combined with safety knowledge and skills that saves lives. There are swimming lessons available for all ages and abilities.

You can also take a First Aid course. Adults who will be supervising children in a pool should have First Aid training. Even if you do not have a supervisory role, incidents can happen to anyone, at any time, so it's always a good idea to know those skills.

What is the recommended way to supervise children swimming in a pool?

Active adult supervision is of the utmost importance. Never leave your child unattended, not even for a second. Stay within sight and reach of children in, on or around the water at all times. No matter how good a swimmer you think your child is, they should always swim with a "buddy" and an adult supervisor. Avoid distractions and stay focused on the child. Reading a book, texting or surfing the internet by the pool is not active supervision. Keep the pool deck clean and clear of debris and toys, to avoid slips and falls. Small, on-ground, portable or "kiddie" pools should be emptied when not in use. Above-ground pools should have the ladder or steps removed when not in use.

What do weak or non-swimmers need to do?

Even though it's recommended that weak or non-swimmers wear life jackets or Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), it's also encouraged that they swim in areas where they can touch the bottom. Parents or caregivers should be aware of their and the swimmer's abilities before entering the water. Even strong swimmers can encounter problems when they are swimming, so you should always swim with a buddy or supervision.

What equipment should I always have near the pool?

Have readily accessible reaching assists (eg. a non-metal reaching pole, branch, rope, water noodle, kickboard or PFD/life jacket), throwing assists with a buoyant aid attached (ring buoy, a throw bag or ball, or a jug filled with water with a rope attached), a working phone and a First Aid kit.

What accessories can help a non or inexperienced swimmer?

Though lifejackets or PFDs should be worn by weak or non-swimmers, they are not substitutes for supervision by an adult with good swimming skills, or a lifeguard. 

There's a difference between a life jacket and a PFD. A life jacket is designed to turn an unconscious person from face down to face up in the water, allowing them to breathe, while a PFD is smaller and designed to keep you afloat in the water. 

What should I look for in a life jacket or PFD?

Lifejackets or PFDs should be Transport Canada approved, and be the proper size with all the buckles, zippers and snaps done up. Be sure to Inspect your flotation devices regularly. If there are rips or signs of wear, they should be replaced immediately.

Should all pools be enclosed? How?

Refer to your municipal bylaws for specific fencing requirements. It's recommended that backyard pool fences are at least 1.2m in height, with gaps no larger than 10 cm, along with a self-closing and self-latching gate, always kept closed with restricted access. It's also not recommended to prop gates open, or to disable alarms on doors that connect to pools or spas.

What depth is considered safe to dive in?

There are many factors to consider when determining if it is safe to dive: height, weight and skill level of the diver; length and depth of the diving area; and the height from which the dive will be taken. There isn't a specific water depth that will be safe for all divers, so what's safe for one person might not be safe for another.

Most in-ground home and hotel pools, even those fitted with a diving board, are unsafe for diving. Deep Dives should be avoided. The deep end is often too short, and the diver can strike his head on the slope of the pool leading up toward the shallow end.

In familiar and unfamiliar water, always enter feet-first the first time to be sure of the water depth and be aware of any hazards. Obey "No Diving" signs and diving depth regulations in open-water settings. Be sure the diving area is large enough and deep enough for the intended dive. Check the shape and length of the pool or waterfront bottom — it should be twice your height for the whole dive.

Dive only where there is ample clearance from the point of entry to the up-slope in front of the take-off point. The presence of a diving board does not necessarily mean that it is safe to dive. Only dive in clear, unobstructed water. Always check first for objects under the surface such as logs, stumps, boulders and pilings, and be aware of variable or changing depths.

Do you really need to wait to swim after eating?

This suggestion is based on the fact that your food might not be digested yet and you may experience stomach or muscle cramps, making it difficult to swim. The amount of time required for digestion depends on the individual and the amount of food consumed. 

Should you always rinse before/after swimming?

If you are swimming at a public or hotel pool, legislation dictates that you must shower using warm water and soap and thoroughly rinse off all soap before entering or re-entering the deck. For a private pool, showering is at the owner's request. 

What are the signs of someone drowning?

A small child can disappear in seconds and drown in only a few centimetres of water (enough to cover the mouth and nose). Drowning is often silent without any noise or clear signs of distress to alert a nearby person.

Some distressed swimmers will try to support themselves in the water. They might float or use swimming skills (such as sculling or treading water), try to grab on to a safety line or other floating object nearby, be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal (depending on their swimming ability) and have enough control of their arms and legs to keep their face out of the water to continue breathing or calling and waving for help.

If a distressed swimmer is not rescued, they may become a drowning person. If conscious they might have distinctive arm and body positions and try to keep the mouth above the surface of the water, struggle to breathe (as the mouth repeatedly sinks below the surface and they may take in water), make little forward progress in the water, (as they are using their energy to keep the mouth above the water's surface) or be unable to reach for a rescue device. 

A drowning person usually stays at the surface for only 20 to 60 seconds. The person may continue to struggle underwater, but eventually becomes unconscious and stops moving. An unconscious drowning person might float face down, at or near the water's surface, or the person might sink to the bottom.

If someone begins drowning, what can I do to help?

For Self-Rescue: 

If you are in shallow water and are able, stand up, or roll onto your back, move your arms and kick your legs to attempt to get to the water's edge. Try to call for help. 

If you are in deeper water, bring yourself to a vertical position with your head out of the water, calm yourself, then roll onto your back, moving your arms and kick your legs to attempt to get to the water's edge. 

For rescue of others: 

If the person is in shallow water, talk to them and encourage them to stand up.

If the person is in deeper water, first stop and check the area for hazards, making sure it's safe for you to help. Next, throw a buoyant object (PFD/life jacket, noodle, kickboard, etc.) and call for help. Keep in constant communication with the person, keeping them calm and instructing them to grab the aid. Once they grab it, they may be able to calm down and stay there until more help arrives or swim to the edge on their own. Do not enter the water yourself.

If you have a buoyant object attached to a rope, you may be able to pull the person to safety. After checking for hazards and calling for help, secure the trailing end of the rope by making a knot at the end and holding it under your foot. Throw the object past the person, then pull the rope so the object floats past them, asking them to grab on. If they cannot, pull the line in quickly and throw it again. After throwing, drop to a knee or lie flat on your stomach for more stability. Once the person has grasped it, pull it in slowly, hand over hand. Let the person touch the edge of the water before using your hand to secure them and only reach out if they have trouble grabbing the edge themselves. 

If you do not have a throwing assist, extending your reach can help you save a life, even if you can't swim. After checking for hazards and calling for help, find something long, strong buoyant and easy to manoeuvre to use as a reaching assist (eg. a pole, branch rope, noodle, PFD/life jacket or even a towel). Get into a safe, stable position before extending the assist (the best position is lying at a 45° angle to the side of the water with legs spread). Your reach will be longest if you can put one shoulder over the edge of the water. After extending the assist, crouch or bend on one knee, staying as far from the water's edge as possible. Be careful not to jab the person with the assist. Talk to them calmly and instruct them to grab the assist. Once grabbed, pull in slowly, hand over hand, letting the person touch the water's edge before securing them with your hand.

Only use your arm to reach if you can't find any rescue equipment at all. Lie down with your legs spread and keep a firm grasp of the edge, dock or boat to stay stable.

What changes when dealing with open water instead of a pool?

Open water is very different than swimming in a pool — distance can be deceiving, and you often must contend with cold water, waves, currents, drop offs, sandbars, water visibility, undertows, and underwater obstacles, as well as watercrafts.

If you become caught in a river current or fast-moving water, roll onto your back and go downstream feet first to avoid hitting obstacles head first. When you are out of the strongest part of the current, swim on a forward angle toward shore.

When boating, have a plan before you head out on the water and be prepared for any possible weather changes or emergencies. Ensure all people on board wear a Transport Canada approved life jacket or PFD. It's not enough to have a life jacket on board, you need to wear it. It is unrealistic and unsafe to assume that a boater will be able to retrieve and properly secure a flotation device while falling overboard, capsizing or colliding with another boat or object.

When using water toys (such as water tubes or skis, safety leashes for paddle boards, wind surfers, surf boards, anchors and ropes for large inflatables, rafts, or party islands), make sure you are with another responsible swimmer. Children should be with an adult. Water toys of any size are not a substitute for adult supervision. Since many of these activities will involve being in the water, and usually away from shore, be aware of your swimming ability in the event that you fall off or lose your craft. WEAR your life jacket, keeping one close by isn't close enough. Regularly check equipment for wear and tear including tow ropes, leashes and anchors.

What precautions should I take if my dog is in the water?

Only perform a rescue if safe to do so, and never follow your pet into a dangerous environment. If your pet is at risk of being swept away, you may be at risk as well. 

If you have concerns about your pet being at risk, help prevent these by keeping your pet on a leash, or have your pet wear an animal life jacket. 

Do you have swimming safety tips or questions for the experts? Dive into the comments and let us know.


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