Another Shallow Water Blackout Death, Sunday, March 20, 2016

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WHEN TRAGEDIES REPEAT THEMSELVES, OUR RESPONSES MUST EVOLVE

  • On Wednesday, September 17, 2014, at a YMCA pool, a 24-year-old man blacked out after repeatedly holding his breath underwater for long periods of time. A lifeguard recovered him from the pool, but the man never regained consciousness. He died in the hospital the following day.
  • On Saturday, December 26, 2015, at a YMCA pool, a 21-year-old man blacked out after holding his breath for an extended period of time while swimming laps. A lifeguard and bystanders recovered him from the pool, but the man never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead on the pool deck.
  • On Sunday, March 20, 2016, at a YMCA pool, a 43-year-old man blacked out after repeatedly holding his breath underwater for long periods of time. A lifeguard recovered him from the pool, but the man never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead that evening.

In the wake of yet another tragedy, our hearts are heavy once again. And our thoughts are with the victim, his family, the lifeguards, the staff and the community.

Shallow Water Blackout, also known as Hypoxic Blackout, is killing swimmers at YMCA pools. At least 5 swimmers have died since 2008. At least 18 more have been successfully rescued after losing consciousness following extended breath holding—incidents which could easily have ended in a fatal result had they not been identified in time. During this same amount of time, 5 children who could not swim died from drowning in YMCA pools—the equal number of deaths as we’ve seen from Shallow Water Blackout. Preventing Shallow Water Blackout should receive the same amount of focus as we put on non-swimmer drowning prevention in our pools.

For more than a decade the aquatic safety community, including Redwoods, have been highlighting the dangers of Shallow Water Blackout. We have consistently recommended that the practice be banned in our partners’ swimming pools. We have recommended signage, member education, and the inclusion of Shallow Water Blackout education in lifeguard training classes and in-services.

And yet these incidents keep happening.

It’s clear that we all need to do more. One area of concern is making sure that rules are not just in place and clearly communicated, but that they are enforced too. That means:

  • Onboarding and training of guards: Make sure that all guards, existing and new, have taken the Shallow Water Blackout online training, available via The Redwoods Institute, before they take their next shift.
  • Identifying red flag behaviors: Guards need to know what prolonged underwater breath holding looks like in the real world. Whether it is members bringing in weight belts or stop watches, swimmers practicing laps without taking a breath, or individuals who are training for the military, there are many red flag behaviors that guards need to identify and associate with the risk of Shallow Water Blackout.
  • Empowering enforcement: It’s not enough to ban breath holding. Those rules need to be enforced too. And that means empowering lifeguards and other staff—whatever their age—to enforce rules and intervene when anyone is seen engaging in risky behaviors.

These are just some of the elements that we all need to focus on. We are in the process of reviewing our full guidance, and taking a fresh look at every aspect of how we work directly with our communities to help prevent this. We ask that you, too, take a moment of introspection to ask whether or not you are doing all that is in your power to prevent this from happening at your pools. We will be working closely with local and national YMCA leadership, who have indicated their full support for addressing this issue as a matter of urgency.

Below is more guidance, much of which we have shared before. If you have not done so already, please make sure that these measures are implemented immediately at all of your aquatic facilities. They represent the minimum that any aquatic facility can do to avoid these preventable tragedies.


THE BASICS OF PREVENTING SHALLOW WATER BLACKOUT

Prohibit long breath holding. Long breath holding activities should be banned during open swim. For competitive activities and advanced programs, limited breath holding, restricted breathing and breath control may be appropriate, but hypoxic training, prolonged breath holding and any breath holding competitions should be prohibited. Read Tom Griffiths' ABCs for SWB.

Put up signs. Post signage that clearly informs swimmers that long breath holding is not permitted at your facility. An example of effective signage can be found at Clarion Safety or ask your Redwoods Risk Consultant for examples in use at other pools.

Educate lifeguards. Take the Redwoods Institute Online Training for Shallow Water Blackout Prevention. Ensure that all lifeguards take this training prior to their next shift in the lifeguard stand. This training is available at no cost to both Redwoods customers and the general public through The Redwoods Institute.

Educate swimmers on the risks of Shallow Water Blackout. Despite all of our efforts, we need swimmers to understand the risks of long breath holding and to refrain from engaging in this risky behavior—both at your facility and elsewhere. Educate your community through all means possible—your newsletter, social media and even in swim lessons for children. Specifically, educate swimmers:

  • Never swim alone. Even when lifeguards are present, swim with a buddy.
  • Do not attempt long underwater swims or timed breath holding.
  • No breath holding competitions, either for time or distance.
  • Never hyperventilate prior to swimming.
  • Don’t resist the urge to breathe: always come up for air when your body tells you to.

For more information on educating your community, visit ShallowWaterBlackoutPrevention.org.

Please share this message widely and share with us how you're preventing Shallow Water Blackout in your pools.

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