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Motivated by a comment thread in this question here. As far as I know the consensus basically boils down to:

  • It is very hard rescuing someone who is drowning.
  • It can be very dangerous rescuing a drowning person, as they can drown their attempted rescuers when panicking.
  • Generally it seems that rescue should be attempted only by people who underwent the corresponding training.

However. Let's assume that we see someone is drowning near the lake shore and we're the only person in the immediate vicinity. Also for the sake of the argument let's assume that we recognised that this person needs immediate rescue from drowning (which, apparently, is not obvious most of the times!).

Is there something that we can and should be doing to help the drowning person (obviously apart from calling first responders)?

  • 1
    Near drowning victims very often disappear without a trace - it's more common for them to sink below the water than to splash about and shout. Definitely not an 'apparently', I'm currently on a diver first aid course and it's not very obvious most of the time! – Aravona Jun 26 '17 at 8:30
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    Drowning doesn't look like drowning. mariovittone.com/2010/05/154 – henning Jun 26 '17 at 13:23
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    The real fact is, untrained people are not good at identifying drowning victims. They do NOT look like the movies! You need training to even know people are drowning. Relevant video. – Nelson Jun 26 '17 at 16:46
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    @henning If you haven't seen it: spotthedrowningchild.com – Phil Jun 27 '17 at 23:49
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    Please Be Warned! The video linked by Nelson is very disturbing. It's a good example of what drowning looks like, but it's real, and involves a child, and I wish I hadn't watched it (not even the beginning). I've felt like crying all day, and I'm not a softy! – bitsmack Jun 28 '17 at 3:55
60

Never, ever enter the water yourself. The most likely outcome of this is you both drown!

Your first thought should always be, "how can I alert the authorities as fast as possible". If you leave the area to do this make a note of exactly where you are first. If you have alerted the authorities (life guard, police, ambulance, etc.) or can't for some reason then you can try the below.

The Royal society for the prevention of accidents (Rospa) has the following advice:

Rescuing a drowning person is the last resort and you should do everything possible to avoid getting into a dangerous situation in the first place. If you have to make a rescue attempt, think of your own safety first and never put yourself in danger. If the rescue is too dangerous, wait until the emergency services arrive.

Reach

With a long stick, a scarf, clothes or anything else. Crouch or lie down to avoid being pulled in.

Wade

Test the depth with a long stick before wading in and then use the stick to reach out. Hold on to someone else or the bank.

Throw

A rope is best - you can then pull in the person. Otherwise throw something that will float - a ball, a plastic bottle, a lifebuoy. This will keep the person afloat until help comes.

Row

Use a boat if there is one nearby and if you can use it safely. Do not try to pull the person on board in case they panic and capsize the boat.

So basically do whatever you can to reach the person without entering the water yourself. Many dangerous areas have life rings, etc. These should be your first port of call. If you can't safely get to the person, don't try! This is pretty hard I'd imagine but the correct thing to do.


To add a brief note to:

Let's assume that we see someone is drowning near the lake shore and we're the only person in the immediate vicinity

What about your phone? Pretty much everyone has a mobile phone these days. Even if you don't have signal you can often call the emergency services. Mobile phone companies will share bandwidth for emergency calls hence the "emergency calls only" message on your phone. So your phone may say it doesn't have signal but it can (often) access signal for a 999(112, 911, etc insert your emergency phone number here) call. This might not be true in very remote mountainous regions but always try even if it seems it won't work.

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    In many cases, throw should be ahead of wade. Moving water is dangerous even when surprisingly shallow, and not all underwater hazards will be easily found byu testing with a long stick. And wading is still entering the water. – Chris H Jun 26 '17 at 8:53
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    Note: modern phones are pre-programmed with a set of emergency numbers they recognize as "special", this typically includes at least 112, 911, and 999. (I assume phones sold in Australia would also recognize 000, etc.) Those numbers are recognized by the phone itself which then doesn't even initiate normal dialing but a special emergency call instead. As you already pointed out, those calls are prioritized, even to the extent of dropping other calls, if there isn't enough bandwidth. They are also always free of charge, don't need a pre-paid balance, don't even need a SIM card, in fact. – Jörg W Mittag Jun 26 '17 at 11:14
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    For those reasons, it may be advantageous to dial one of those pre-programmed numbers instead of a regional one, since if the phone doesn't recognize the number as "special", the call will route normally through the network. Last, but not least, the emergency calls are location-aware, so your call will be routed to the nearest emergency response. Depending on your phone, and your local laws, the carrier will also provide location data for your call to the emergency services. – Jörg W Mittag Jun 26 '17 at 11:16
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    @Tullochgorum: alerting authorities must always be the first action. The reason for this is not that they'll be able to reach the person in distress faster than you can, but so that they arrive on site as quickly as possible. Say you were able to rescue someone and are doing CPR - you'll be glad for every minute that they'll arrive earlier... Also they will generally talk you through the steps you should undertake next. – fgysin Jun 26 '17 at 12:14
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    @Tullochgorum going beyond fgysin's point that EMS arriving sooner will be better for the victim, you also need to consider that you need someone to back you up to. Even for trained Lifeguards, the first step in a rescue is ensuring that EMS is notified so that someone is on the way and knows that there is trouble. As unfortunate or selfish as it may sound a dead swimmer with the ambulance on the way is preferable than a dead swimmer and a dead rescuer that no one is aware of. Always call for help first. – Malco Jun 26 '17 at 19:36
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I learned the following in my lifeguard training from the Boy Scouts:

  • REACH: Victim(s) are located close to the shoreline and the rescuer(s) can retrieve them by reaching with their persons, rescue pole or hook, an oar, a backboard, etc without having to enter the water. Victim(s) must be conscious, alert, and able to grab and hold on to the reaching device for this method to be considered.

  • THROW: Victim(s) are too far away from the shoreline to be reached with a rigid object. Rescuers can throw ropes, rope bags, flotation rings or discs tied to a rope, a PFD tied to a rope, etc. to retrieve the victim without having to enter the water. Victim(s) must be conscious, alert, and able to grab and hold on to the thrown object for this method to be considered.

  • ROW: Victim(s) are too far away from the shoreline to be reached or to have a flotation device thrown to them. Rescuers must use a boat or approved watercraft to access and retrieve the victim(s) without having to enter the water. Once close enough to the victim(s), rescuers can Reach, Throw, or lift them directly into the boat (whichever method is easiest and safest). Victim(s) may be conscious and alert or unconscious.
  • GO: Rescuers must physically enter the water and swim to the victim(s) to retrieve them. This method may be used from the shoreline or from a boat depending on the circumstances. This method is typically used for unconscious victims but may also be used for conscious and alert victims that are in distress or unable to grab and hold on to a flotation device. Only those rescuers, who are strong swimmers, should enter the water to retrieve a victim.

(Text copied from http://www.lancasterfd.net/uploads/OPEN_WATER_RESCUE_07-18-12.pdf)

For your example of a drowning victim at a lake, you should first try to establish verbal communication with them. I've witnessed countless times where kids pretend they are drowning by splashing around and calling for help. The giggles help to separate the two situations apart. During training, we often simulated the call for help with the word "pineapple". Once you know a person is having difficulty swimming, never take your eyes off of them. If you can, call the authorities for help.

If the victim is close enough to the shore or dock, try to reach out to them with a long poll, a towel or t-shirt, or even your arm. If you cannot reach them, the next step should be to throw a flotation device to them. If they are beyond throwing distance and you have a boat available, use it to get closer to the victim then use one of the methods above. Be careful not to be pulled in yourself.

The last method is only recommended for trained and experienced rescuers, and that is to physically get in the water and go to them. This is by far the riskiest method of rescue for anyone (including lifeguards), and is the last method on the list for that purpose. When you get into the water, you may be exposing yourself to the same drowning hazards as the victim. Upon reaching the victim, they will be panicked and will want to grab onto the nearest object - you! If the victim will not calm down, lifeguards are often taught techniques to swim around the victim and subdue them with a hold. Even if a rescuer can manage to reach a victim and get a hold of them, they then need to swim them back to shore. This can be exhausting even for strong swimmers.

Don't become a victim yourself. Stick with reaching, throwing, or rowing and always call for help.

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    Once you know a person is having difficulty swimming, never take your eyes off of them. If you can, call the authorities for help. This is much more nuanced than the advice quoted in the other answer, but does assume at least a little training. – Chris H Jun 27 '17 at 7:07
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    Just to be clear what the Boy Scouts teach about that last point, it is "Go with support". That is take a flotation device with you if you have to enter the water. – jmarkmurphy Jun 27 '17 at 11:30
  • Often this order comes with another step at the beginning, "shout" or "self" or "yell" or whatever term you prefer for just shouting at someone what they should do. People react pretty instinctively when in trouble. When someone is desperately swimming against a current while they could be swimming beside it, shout. Often people will not really be swimming at all, more like making drowning movements. As stupid ad it sounds, tell them to swim. – Monster Jul 8 '17 at 17:33
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I was always taught three very important things to consider before you even attempt to rescue someone in distress in the water.

  1. You, yourself, all alone, barely float. You might think you're awesome at back floating, but put just a ten pound weight on your chest and see if you can still float. A person will weigh more than that.

  2. People in distress in the water are stupid, scared, and lethal. They will grab on to ANYTHING to stay afloat. That includes you. They will have no problem drowning your ass to save themselves. For you, you're making decisions in a crisis; for them, they're in survival-at-all-costs mode.

  3. Whatever caused the problem for that person could still cause a problem for you. If they got tangled in a rope, then what's gonna stop you from getting tangled? Sometimes this is a non-issue, but most of the time people that are in distress in the water get that way by accident. A strong current, a big wave, an animal, all of which you will have to deal with too, if you decide to go out there.

So if someone is in distress, your goal is not to get them out of the water. Your goal is to keep them alive long enough for two or three people to get them out of the water.

I was taught:

  • Reach - From the pool side, or dock or boat or platform, grab a stick and reach. If they can reach out to the stick, you may be able to get them to the edge. Don't be afraid to "beat" them with the stick. If they can clearly reach it and are just not seeing it, smack them with it. Especially their arms and hands. You're not trying to knock them out, you're trying to get them to notice the stick. Hitting their arms or hands will get them to instinctively notice. Again don't knock them out; think nun with a ruler not He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

  • Throw - If the stick won't reach, or they don't notice it, time to start throwing things. Take anything that floats, even a little and whip it right at their head. Not in front, not behind, not off to the side, right smack at their head. The goal is that while they are flapping around like a fool, their hands or arms land on the floaty thing. Usually "life savers" or other pool floats work really well. Don't throw anything that is going to cause a concussion, you are aiming for their head. So even though it floats the 4x4 post, not a good choice. If you don't have anything else, then chuck it at them, but avoid the head obviously. However consider that it will be further away and probably useless because of that.

  • Walk - IF you can stand up AND you know there are no issues (like rocks or animals) then it's generally safe enough to walk out to them and carry/push them to the edge. Again, this is more like in a pool setting. If you don't know the bottom, or the cause for distress, you're better off skipping this one. If you just have to, then use a walking stick, carry two "floats" (ones on a rope work well), stay calm and "poke-and-step" your way out to them. If you can no longer reach the bottom with sure footing when you get to them this isn't going to work. But hey your closer now, so try beaning them with the floats.

  • Touch - This is totally a last resort. If you have to go and get them by walking or swimming to them, then use the floats. Especially as you get close. Your goal isn't to get them to land. Not alone. Your goal is to keep their head above water. You need to be really prepared for this and it shouldn't be tried except when there are no other options. Get to them. Try to come up behind them. Grab them by the neck, forcefully. Put your arm around their neck. You're not trying to choke them, you're trying to make sure they can't turn around and drown you. If you have to, be prepared to smack/punch this person. Sometimes they will need that shock to stop acting a fool. Sometimes you will need to to keep yourself out of trouble. Approach this option as a fight, not a rescue. Get to them, take control, dominate, then once they're calm (or knocked out), focus on treading water and keeping your head, and theirs above the water. Only then do you try to drag them to the shore. In short, if you have to go this route (and you really shouldn't) 1. Subdue, 2. Stabilize, 3. Exit. The real problem with this approach is that you are not rescuing a person making decisions, you're rescuing a mass that will do anything, including kill you, to stay alive. You might as well think of your friend your trying to save as a mass of wet loins. You really have to approach it with that mind set, and be ready to do what ever it takes to keep your self alive, even if it means punching your friend in the face till they are dazed so they don't drown you too. You approach from the back and use the "choke hold" (don't choke them that won't help) to minimize the risk to your self. The worst thing you could do is come in from the front, all calm and "I'm here to help, please don't hit me" cause they will. They can't help it, they're not thinking they're just reacting. Dominate the situation.

  • Wait - Sounds mean, but if they're drowning, just wait, they will go unconscious soon enough, then you can move them to land and use CPR if needed. Keep in mind you should use the same rules as "touch". This actually will have a higher success rate than you, as an untrained person, jumping in the water and trying to subdue them and get them back to land, but only works well in situations where you know the water. If they're freaking out in a pool or lake, or the like, where you can reach the bottom. That's why it's last. It doesn't work everywhere.

I can't stress enough, that this situation is a lot like CPR. Screw the broken ribs, compress the chest. Some of the stuff in this answer may seem "mean" if your doing them to your room mate in the living room, but if the person is in distress in the water your going to do more damage being "nice" then doing what needs to be done.

At the same time "Touch" is really a bad idea. If you have no choice and you decide to try, as an untrained person your much more likely to just drown your self. You really need to consider all options. The absolute worse thing you can do is get in the water and make the situation more difficult by getting into trouble yourself.

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    Yes! I was wondering why nobody was mentioning the Wait option. – Roflo Jun 26 '17 at 16:50
  • I think this answer could use a bit of editing to improve it. You seem to be writing this from what the Life Saving Society would consider a lifesaver perspective (someone with minimal but not zero amount of rescue training) whereas the question is asking from the point of view of someone with no training. Also I believe you have reach and throw mixed up in terms of order actions someone should take (see Ladder Approach). – Malco Jun 26 '17 at 16:59
  • I was taught (so yes a non-0 amount of training, though not much it was part of a general safety class that included first aid, CPR, this, and a few other things that "everyone" should learn) that you reach before you throw, because if they are close enough to actually reach, with say the pool cleaner, your in a much better situation then if there too far to reach with that pool cleaner. For example throwing a life preserver to 3 feet away really isn't that great of a plan. And it doesn't take long to rule out "reach", while throw can take a moment to see that it's not going to work. – coteyr Jun 26 '17 at 17:33
  • For example a lot of times you can just rule out reach, if there more then a few feet away. But most of us can chuck a "life saver" a good 5 - 50 yards, though with very limited accuracy. – coteyr Jun 26 '17 at 17:36
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    @coteyr the focus of the ladder is on minimizing risk to the rescuer, especially when they are untrained. Any contact with the victim puts the rescuer at risk so throw makes sense to come before reach. When I was still teaching the one of the thing that I tried to emphasize with my classes, as that was something that was beat into me by my instructor, was "Your primary focus should be on keeping yourself safe, because if your rescue goes wrong then you have two drowning people." – Malco Jun 26 '17 at 18:43
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I think you want a TL;DR answer. The other answers have danced around this but here it is. This proposal requires no special training and is easy to remember. Are you ready for it?

Wait until the person drowning is unconscious

That's it. Print it on cards, hand it out to friends. Post it on signs if need be. People will think you're crazy at first. I mean, firefighters run into burning buildings, so why not jump in an save them? Because you will drown.

I took a course in lifeguarding in boy scouts and, at 12 years old, we had to save Dave. Dave was a 200lb grown man who would swim out and be our drowning victim (yes, a 12 yr old can save even an adult). Dave's sole role was to teach us that our life was more important than his. Sometimes you could talk Dave down, but sometimes you would have to wait until he went under the water. If you didn't, you now had a 200lb man holding 12 yr old boys underwater. See the problem? We did, and we saw it from underwater, realizing that this wasn't a game, it was life or death. Nobody died, of course, but we could have.

You can revive an unconscious person. If you do it immediately, there's little or no risk to their health, but most importantly there's no risk to yours. Keep in mind that calling and waiting for rescuers involves the same thing, it's just you wait for them to come fish the person out instead of doing it yourself.

4

The other answers here have good info but are either incomplete or disordered.

Phone emergency services first either you'll need them or you cancel them a minute or two later.

There are two important principles that guide us here:

Hierarchy of safety and hierarchy of recuse methods.

hierarchy of safety (who's safety you should put first when making decisions):

  • self
  • group
  • victim
  • gear

Basically, your own safety comes first, then the safety of your group etc. Any attempt to rescue should never put yourself or others in your group in danger.

Hierarchy of rescue:

  1. Talk: this should always be plan A. it's no risk. Simply helping people calm down and telling them what to do and where to go. Surprisingly effective.

  2. Reach: Staying firmly on the bank, find a stick/branch/whatever to pull someone into safety. The important thing here is that you let go if you begin to put your own safety at risk.

For UNTRAINED people, it ends here. You can't go further down this list without putting yourself or others in greater danger. (But I'll finish anyway)

  1. Throw. Ideally a throw rope that you can use to pull/pendulum someone to safety. This isn't for untrained people because A: ropes in water are dangerous. Victims become tangled in them and untrained rescuers can do silly things like getting themselves dragged in. B: unless you know how to throw a rope, you probably won't succeed anyway.

  2. Row(paddle) Again, this is something you do only if you are skilled with the craft and in rescuing with it (if you were, you'd already be familiar with this list). Otherwise you're just putting yourself in danger.

  3. Go Rescuer in the water. Either swimming out or as a dope-on-rope. Only if you've trained in this and with the assistance of other trained people.

  4. Heilo A situation that can only be solved with a helicopter rescue.

  • I am a bit taken aback by 3 being off limits (layman here): B obviously isn't a reason not to try and from A, is there really a know case where someone sunk because he became tangled in a rescue rope? The other aspect of being pulled in: You can always let go, so unless you pull right from the border to the water and it is unescapable once fallen in, what exactly is the danger? – imsodin Jun 27 '17 at 12:40
  • I agree with @imsodin, I think you might have reach and throw mixed up, I always taught according to the Life Saving Societies Ladder Approach. Otherwise, great answer! – Malco Jun 27 '17 at 13:15
  • I believe the order is correct. Here is the reasoning. If the person is out of range for a throw, there is no way you are going to be able to "reach" the victim. But end of the line is after throw for untrained individuals, and even non-swimmers can help all the way up to that point because the rescuer remains firmly on dry ground. Think about it would you rather drown, or be tangled in a rope while you are being pulled to safety (those are your only two choices)? – jmarkmurphy Jun 27 '17 at 14:56
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    @Niall as you said it really depends on what you have at hand. When teaching I would always have my students practice with kickboards since we had those in excess. But even when using a proper throw with line, I would say it is pretty much on par or a bit less with reach in terms of risk. There are so many variables that you need to take into account when you are preforming a rescue, it makes it hard to have a generic answer that any untrained person can immediately go to. That is why I think this answers emphasis on call someone and keep yourself safe is important. – Malco Jun 27 '17 at 16:15
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    @jmarkmurphy you're using good logicical risk/reward thinking, the problem is that an untrained person won't have the knowledge on which to base their assessment. ...and like anything in life, you can ALWAYS make things worse! – Niall Jun 27 '17 at 18:49
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It is best to throw them a line or float. Use a long stick. They will grab you & take you under with them. Normal way is to sail close with your outrigger & let them grab one. Then set of a flare. To bring other boats. Near shore yell loud bring out the people form a human chain. This is much safer than trying alone. The human chain has saved many lives near shore were I live in storms when boats are drove into the rocks making shore. S. Pacific.

2

SHOUT should be on top of all the lists. It helps remove panic, attracts attention and allows the passage of useful instructions to the victim, such as treading water, floating on their back (so the mouth and nose are upper most!), encouraging them to swim / doggy paddle backwards (nostrils uppermost!).

Then you can look for anything that could aid you/them - a piece of wood, a football, etc. for floatation and reach.

Followed by all the other good advice

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