Alaska Deaths Spur Reminders About Signs of Drowning

By NICOLE KLAUSS | August 13, 2013

Drowning doesn’t look like it does in Hollywood.

There’s not always splashing and screams. Often, drowning signs are so subtle they go undetected.

“Sometimes people perceive it as someone thrashing and being able to scream and yell, water flying everywhere,” Alaska State Troopers Sgt. Eric Olsen said. “A lot of times people get so fatigued or tired or cramped that their movements are very subtle or they’re already choking up and having a gag reflex on water that they can’t call out for help.”

In July, two people -a 14-year-old boy and a 44-year-old fisherman – drowned on Kodiak Island.

According to the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, drowning is the No. 2 cause of unintentional injury deaths for children ages 1 to 14, and the No. 5 cause of unintentional injury deaths for all ages in the U.S.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between 2005 to 2009, there were an average of 3,533 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) each year. Another 347 people died each year from boating-related incidents.

Factors that can lead to drowning include a lack of swimming skills, supervision or barriers, location, failure to wear life jackets, health issues and alcohol use.

Alcohol makes the body feel warm on the inside, but causes blood vessels to expand which leads to a more rapid loss of heat from the skin, and an increased chance of hypothermia. It can also affect judgment ability.

“Alcohol can be a big factor in drowning deaths in Alaska, whether on a boat or swimming,” Olsen said.

Alaska waters are especially dangerous because of their low temperatures, which can drop a person’s body temperature and lead to hypothermia and physical inabilities that make it difficult to swim or stay afloat. Even when the water temperature is warm by Alaska standards, hypothermia sets in quickly.

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. When body temperature drops, the heart, nervous system and other organs don’t function properly.

Olsen has been a search and rescue responder for the Alaska State Troopers and was a commercial fisherman for 17 years. Based on his experience, the best way to prevent drowning is to take proper precautions.

Some of those precautions include having a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket that actually fits, wearing it while on the water, having a designated spotter who is equipped with a cell phone and floatation device that can be thrown.

“When kids are on a boat by state law they’re required to have a life jacket,” Olsen said. “When they’re swimming or doing recreational activities it’s always a good idea to have a life jacket on even if they feel it’s not necessary because people do tire very easily and sometimes when the core temperature of the body gets down to a certain point, they’re not able to mentally make the right decisions and respond physically.”

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