Staying Afloat While Summer Swimming

Swim lessons can help save lives this summer says the American Red Cross

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Many American families are planning on swimming in areas without lifeguards this summer. To make things worse, very few of them have water safety knowledge.

A recent survey released by the American Red Cross has some troublesome findings. Not only do most Americans know little about water safety, few plan to do anything about it.

The American Red Cross hopes the results of this survey are a wake-up call. It is crucial for anyone planning a summer sojourn or even a quick trip the pool to learn about water safety.

The organization urges families, especially those with kids, who plan to be around water this summer to consider formal swimming instruction and pay more attention to water safety. 


Take swim lessons and stay safe around water.


The water safety poll was conducted for the American Red Cross by ORC International, a collaborative research partner.

The researchers surveyed 1,011 US adults 18 years of age and older on April 11 through 14 both via landline and cell phones. All the survey results were compared with results from 2009 to provide a frame of reference.

The poll asked participants questions about their water safety habits, including whether they planned to swim in areas with lifeguards, use life jackets and supervise their kids near water. The survey also included true-or-false questions that tested participants’ knowledge of how to keep kids safe and what to do in critical situations, such as strong ocean currents.

The poll found that 63 percent of families with kids planned on swimming in areas unequipped with lifeguards. Only half of the participants had taken swimming lessons in the past, with African Americans being the least likely (32 percent took swimming lessons) to have had formal instruction.

In 20 percent of the households with children ages 3 to 17, none of the children knew how to swim. In the 2009 survey, 20 percent of households said at least one of their kids would take swimming lessons that summer, but this number fell to 14 percent this year. In fact, 62 percent of the households had no plans for any family members to receive swimming instruction this summer.

The survey also exposed some mistaken beliefs among the participants, including the expectation that swimming buddies or floatation devices alone could keep them safe in water.

According to the Red Cross press release about the poll, "While the Red Cross recommends that people always swim with a buddy in designated swimming areas supervised by lifeguards, buddies alone are not enough to keep swimmers safe."

Another incorrect belief, which was held by 67 percent of the participants, was that inflatable arm bands – also called “water wings” – would keep kids safe and act as a substitute for adult supervision. “These are not lifesaving devices, and children and weak/inexperienced swimmers should wear US Coast Guard-approved life jackets while remaining under constant adult supervision,” said the American Red Cross in the press release.

What might be surprising is that despite the above results, around half of the participants admitted to having an experience where they were afraid they were about to drown. Hispanics were more likely (66 percent) to report such an experience over other populations. The proportion of participants who said they knew someone who was in danger of drowning rose to 41 percent in the current survey as compared to the 2009 Red Cross survey in which only 25 percent had heard of such an incident.

Most of the participants did not demonstrate knowledge of the right action to take if they they saw someone in distress in the water. Only 7 percent of the participants were able to list the correct order of steps to take to help prevent a drowning incident.

Not only did the participants not know what to do in such cases, a third of them were not even sure how to recognize distress signs.

“We’re concerned with the finding that three in five people mistakenly believe they should enter the water and rescue the distressed swimmer. This is a dangerous course of action that risks the life of the rescuer,” said Peter G. Wernicki, MD, a member of the Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and the chair of its Aquatics Sub-Council.

“If you see a swimmer in distress, you should: shout for help, reach or throw the person a rescue or flotation device and tell them to grab it; then call 9-1-1 if needed,” Wernicki said. “An emergency can happen to anyone in or around the water—regardless of swimming ability. A person may scream or splash, but quite often people who are in trouble in the water cannot or do not call out for help. They spend their energy trying to keep their head above water to get a breath.”

The American Red Cross also listed other signs of a swimmer in trouble:

  • Treading water and waving an arm
  • Doggie paddling with no forward progress
  • Hanging onto a safety line
  • Floating on their back and waving their arms
  • Arms extended side or front, pressing down for support, but making no forward progress
  • Positioned vertically in the water, but not kicking legs
  • Underwater for more than 30 seconds
  • Floating at surface, face down, for more than 30 seconds

Families are encouraged to take Red Cross swimming lessons that help people stay safe around water. American Red Cross swimming programs may be available at local aquatic facilities.

The survey results were released by the American Red Cross in May 2013. 

The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 21, 2013
Last Updated:
August 5, 2013