No Open Water is Safe Open Water- There Is No Immunity Against Drowning: A Lifeguard’s Thoughts

I think lifeguards are often envisioned as either those people in red that make a small wage to enforce swimming pools rules or the glamorous Baywatch type characters we see in the media. This unfortunately, is a poorly defined description of us. We are your average dedicated person, generally underpaid for our services, with extensive knowledge in water related incidents, and a strong passion for preventative measures.

 Lifeguards All Feel the Same About Drowning Prevention

Lifeguards, no matter where they are across Canada complete the same lengthily, physically demanding, knowledge intensive, certification process. There are specializations in lifeguarding such as pool, waterfront, and water park. But, regardless of which category a lifeguard is certified through, they will forever be left with the disturbing realities of the dangers of water and the unfortunate outcomes of it’s victims.

 We Aren’t Invincible; We’re Just Knowledgeable

It might seem logical that a lifeguard would be seemingly invincible in water. But this is certainly not true. In fact, although I am very confident in my swimming abilities, I am actually quite slow and much less efficient than competitive swimmers. A lifeguard is not necessarily an impeccable, athletic swimmer. The service does require a strong swimming ability but also quick thinking and the ability to act on calculated risk.

As summer has greeted us all again, and with lakes and rivers quickly rising in temperature, we all need to be reminded that contrary to popular belief, no open water is safe open water, no matter how good of a swimmer we may think we are.

Be Well Informed- Drownings Can Happen to Anyone

What sets a lifeguard apart and keeps them safe, much more than their swimming ability ever possibly could, is simply being a well informed person on the dangers that water can possess. Lifeguards know it can happen. They know that the small chance of fatality exists no matter how safe the circumstance may appear. They know this to be especially true in uncontrolled environments like open water. From personal experience as a water safety instructor and a lifeguard for over five years, when a drowning occurs close to home, I am reminded yet again of just how unforgiving water can be to those oblivious to it’s power.

I am reminded again, why my job exists. I prevent. I protect. But I also exist to educate. 

Some Quick Random Tips & Facts About Drowning

  • “Drowning” is actually quite subtle. In fact, someone who is a non swimmer will not be asking for help because their focus will be on getting air only. Their arms do not wave around, there is no sound and often there is little splashing. It is not what it looks like in the movies.
  • Weak swimmers are swimmers that are able to swim but have gotten too tired to the point where they no longer can swim and become a non swimmer. These swimmers can ask for help at first however, if ignored, these swimmers will become non-swimmers. Some may think it’s a joke because they know the person is normally able to swim, but sometimes people do get tired to the point where they can no longer swim, especially if a current is involved. I have witnessed people swimming lengths in the pool perfectly fine and suddenly need assistance, panic and then become a non swimmer.
  • Non Swimmers who are panicking can drown you by accident. If you attempt to rescue someone, their focus is going to be on getting their own head above the water, they don’t care where yours is. I have witnessed someone try to rescue their tired friend and become submerged while the first victim then appears calm with their head above the water. Lifeguards call this a double drowning. If you are to ever rescue someone in water, always attempt to push a flotation device towards them first. If you do happen to get grabbed by a non swimmer, attempt to drag the victim under the water. Usually the victim will release as their priority is to keep their head above the water.

Let’s Talk About Water Related Spinal Injuries

Spinals are spinal or neck injuries. As a lifeguard I am going to talk about water related ones. If someone was to dive in head first into water and hit their head on the bottom, they could potentially cause any injury to themselves ranging from unconsciousness to paralyzation. This is what people commonly think of when they think about spinals and why pools have no diving signs in the shallow areas. Now what I want to bring your attention to is spinal injuries that you can get from impacting the bottom with your feet first. If you jump from a height into water that is shallow feet first, you can also paralyze yourself. Your feet will absorb the shock of the impact and direct all of the force up your spine. If you are jumping somewhere… off something… where you are cutting up your feet or legs, you are jumping somewhere that is too shallow. You can even impact the bottom and think you are fine until hours later after you have been mobile all day and already caused even more damage. This is something to keep in mind if you are jumping from a height and are unsure of the depth you are jumping into.

Drownings are Heart Breaking

Even as a lifeguard who is always prepared to expect the worst, I am still devastated to hear the news of a drowning or water related injury… anywhere. I am devastated because I know that in all likelihood the drowning could have been prevented in some way. I am also devastated by the innocence of the victim and the ripple of heart break family and friends experience from the very sudden loss of that victim

Drowning Prevention Without the Scare Tactic

Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer that you should not be afraid of the world. You shouldn’t be scared to swim in open water, you shouldn’t be afraid to jump off every height. These activities are fun and in some places, are a part of growing up and enjoying the place you live in. With that being said, I also am a firm believer in safety education and caution. I think too often we are told not to do things because they aren’t safe, but no one ever really explains what is unsafe about these things.

Here are three points that are very important when it comes to water safety:

  1. Know the depth of the water before you jump into it (especially from a height)- This means you explore where you are swimming for yourself. If you cannot see the bottom or know what’s on the bottom of open water from your own exploration, you don’t jump. Especially not from any kind of height.
  2. Be educated on currents and tides– Currents are silent killers. You can’t see their intensities and undertows are rarely visible. It’s important to learn how to spot them, what to do if you get caught in one and also proper techniques on how to get out of one. Unfortunately, this is information that often isn’t presented to us unless we partake in lifesaving courses. We have to self teach ourselves these things from reading material on the internet.

Currents and tides are very scary water features of open bodies of water. Although this video focused on beach currents, don’t forget those that keep our rivers moving. We should all keep in mind, the higher the water (high usually in the spring/early summer from flooding), the faster it moves, the stronger the current.

3.  Never swim alone- If something was to happen to you, you don’t want to be that person who always thought “It won’t happen to me”. Even if you are swimming alone, give someone a heads up that you are out on the water, where you will be and when they should hear from you again. Things happen in a split second and your best bet is to have a buddy to help you or at least find help quickly if an emergency was to occur.

Personally one of the most important safety lessons I have learned as a lifeguard is to educate yourself on the features of the water that you are swimming in IE.) depth, temperature, currents, and industrial dangers. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are missing information, don’t swim there. 

Of course, you can’t always know about every current or undertow and those “freak” accidents will happen. The unfortunate part in the aquatic world is that it usually takes a death to create any change in water safety or awareness.


 I have watched countless videos of drownings for educational purposes, I have worked with people who have rescued and performed CPR on non breathing bodies. I know people who have suddenly lost family and friends in open water very close to home.

Ontario (due to our vast amounts of open water) has the highest rate of preventable drownings in Canada. These drownings mostly occur in Youth 14-24 and Seniors 65+, with the highest occurrences between June and July each year.

There is a visible trend that education prevents drownings and this is my purpose behind my post today. I believe there is a lack of water safety education in school systems and in small communities currently and I would love to find a way to change that.

Always remember that drownings occur quickly, and they can happen to anyone. Water safety is in all honestly, not common knowledge. There is a lot to know. I have boxes upon boxes of resources and have taken extensive training to know all that I do right now to be able to put together this post. It is my hope that I can educate for free to prevent these water tragedies.

I wish everyone a safe summer and I am thinking all of those currently out there who have ever lost a friend or a family member to a water related incident.

Thanks for stopping in and until next time,



If you would like to view the Lifesaving Society’s 2016 Canadian Drowning Report for more information on drowning statistics in Canada, click the link below.

2016 Canadian Drowning Report

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