How to Prevent or Take Action in a Drowning Incident

How to Prevent or Take Action in a Drowning Incident

By: Christen Bourgeois Date: May 17th, 2022

Prevention > Recognition > Response > Rescue > Treatment

Five Steps "Chain of Drowning Survival" infographic from American Red Cross
Source: American Red Cross

May is National Water Safety Month

Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion or immersion in liquid. It is a leading cause of injury-related death in children.

Over 1,500 children and teens die every year in the U.S. from drowning. In Washington state, an average of 25 children and teens drown every year. Most drownings occur while swimming, boating, or just playing in or near water.

Every year in the U.S., there is an estimated total of:

  • 3,960 Fatal (Unintentional) Drownings including boating-related drowning—resulting in an average of 11 drowning deaths per day.
  • 8,080 Nonfatal Drowningsresulting in an average of 22 nonfatal drownings per day with survivors experiencing no injuries to very serious injuries or permanent disability.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has also updated its prior Drowning Guidelines Report with NEW information and research.

Five life-saving steps to follow in or near water:


Practice safety when in or near water. It has been estimated that most drownings are preventable. The ability to avoid a drowning contrasts with the high rates of poor outcomes following these type of incidents. Drowning requires multiple layers of protection. To be effective, drowning prevention must be used by individuals near, on or around the water, and those who supervise or care for others in water settings.

Recommended actions:

  • Stay within arm’s reach of children when in or near the water
  • Swim in water-safe areas only when lifeguards are on duty
  • Fence pools, spas, and other aquatic areas with 4-sided enclosures (eg, fencing or other surrounding)
  • Always wear a lifejacket when using a watercraft (eg, boat, kayak, or other vessel)
  • Learn how to swim and practice water-safety survival skills


Call for help. If you recognize a person is in distress while in or near the water, it is important to send someone to call for help. Delays in activating rescue and emergency medical services (EMS) increases the risk of fatal drownings.

Ways to recognize if a person is at risk of drowning:

  • Near vertical body position
  • Ineffective downward arm movements
  • Ineffective pedaling or kicking leg actions
  • Little or no forward progress

Recommended actions:

  • Recognize early drowning distress signs (eg, person in water not waving or calling for help)
  • Send someone near you to call for help while you remain on-scene to provide assistance
  • Keep watch of the drowning person’s location in the water

Step 3  |  RESPONSE

Prevent submersion. After recognizing a person is in distress and sending someone to call for help, the next priority is to interrupt the drowning process by providing flotation. The safest course of action is to NOT enter the water. Instead, it is important to reach out with, throw, or drop the flotation to the person in distress.

Recommended actions to help a drowning person

  • Stay OUT of the water to reduce risk of drowning
  • Reach out with, throw, or drop something that floats to the person in distress

Recommended actions to help yourself:

  • If YOU are in difficulty, do not panic
  • Stay with the flotation
  • Signal for help
  • Float on your back with your head and chin tilted back
  • Keep your external airways (mouth and nose) clear of water

Step 4  |  RESCUE

When safe to do so, it is best to remove the drowning person from water in order to provide a definitive end to the drowning process. In order to mitigate risks, a rescuer MUST bring a source of flotation to assist in the rescue.

Recommended actions:

  • Try to communicate with the drowning person to direct them safely out of water
  • Try to safely remove the drowning person without entering the water yourself
  • Try to rescue the drowning person with any flotation available

Step 5  |  TREATMENT

Seek immediate medical attention, if required. Initiation of basic life support may occur while the drowning person is still in water if the rescuer is trained and can safely provide in-water cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). As soon the drowning person is removed from the water, the rescuer(s) must recognize the severity of the person’s condition—especially if there is a life-threatening situation.

Recommended actions if the person rescued is NOT breathing:

Recommended actions if the person rescued IS breathing:

  • If the person rescued IS breathing, stay with them and provide support until help arrives

For more information on drowning prevention and water safety resources, visit: