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Water safety initiative calls on greater action to prevent drowning deaths

On the Fourth of July, John Raquet was kayaking at the Kenosha lakefront when he pulled a 13-year-old girl who was drowning at the outlet of the Pike River at Pennoyer Park out of the water.

Raquet, 61, of Deerfield, Ill., never realized the profound effect of his actions and how the actions of others — the man who noticed her struggling calling it to his attention, the onlookers who formed a human chain to help them to safety — could have in saving a life.

And it has called him to do more.

On Monday, Raquet took the day off to attend YMCA’s Safety Around Water Initiative, which has had a few meetings but has begun to step up efforts looking at ways to prevent drownings in Lake Michigan. A few days before the near-drowning incident, a man died trying to save his 10-year-old daughter who had gone into the same area of dangerous water.

“I took the day off today because I wanted to be here,” he said. “I felt this was important.”

Dave Benjamin of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project gave a presentation Monday on water safety education to a group that included YMCA Executive Director Cindy Altergott, Somers Fire Chief Carson Wilkinson, Raquet and Peggy Burke, a Kenosha resident whose husband drowned in Lake Erie while on a fishing trip, among others. Bob Pratt, also with the surf rescue project, attended.

Benjamin’s presentation focused on a number of ways people can prevent drownings, including the use of flotation devices, wearing life jackets, knowing weather and water conditions and identifying what drowning looks like.

“I had a lot of swimming experience,” he said. “I didn’t even know I could drown even though I had all this experience. I didn’t know that panic was the first stage of drowning. If you can’t get over that panic, your reactions can kill you.”

Benjamin, an experienced swimmer, formed his non-profit organization after he nearly drowned while surfing in 35-degree waters while surfing one day in Lake Michigan. He had “wiped out” and been pushed to the bottom and he panicked. It was panic upon panic, he said.

As he was holding his last breath, he recalled something he read by a U.S. Coast Guard official who described how humans instinctively know how to drown. It wasn’t until he realized he shouldn’t be vertical in the water and instead needed to be floating on his back that his panic ceased and he survived the near-drowning experience.

In fact, 66 percent of people who have been drowned were good swimmers, according to national data, and 80 percent of drowning victims are men. According to the American Red Cross, 54 percent of Americans don’t have the basic swimming ability to save themselves in a water emergency.

“As long as I’m not vertical ... and I’m relaxing, getting my breathing under control ... when the waves come to crash over me I’m duck-diving underneath the waves,” he said.

‘Flip, float and follow’

Benjamin and Pratt teach water safety classes that show participants the “flip, float and follow” method in which they flip over on to their back floating, keeping their heads above water, using calm breathing and following the current so they can conserve energy.

Unlike the classic Hollywood portrayal with flailing of arms splashing water and head still above water able to yell, someone who’s drowning already has their mouth at water level or tilted back, their body is vertical and their motion looks as as though they’re climbing a ladder.

Preventing drownings, he said, receives far less attention and funding than the Zika virus epidemic and earthquakes, with the World Health Organization calling it a public health issue that is largely neglected. People know how to “stop, drop and roll” in event of a fire, but don’t know how to keep from drowning.

Stigma of drowning

There is also a stigma associated with drowning, Benjamin said.

“The stigma is, when a drowning happens, often what the public will do is blame the victim, blame the parents or caregivers or ... ‘I wouldn’t put myself in that situation,’” he said. “But that doesn’t solve anything.”

Pratt said when stories about the drowning and near-drowning incidents occurred, he read the comments from “Facebook warriors” calling the victims names.

“It’s so off-base because what father’s not going to go in?” he said.

The group also discussed ideas from staffing beaches with lifeguards to better signage indicating the dangers of swimming in dangerous areas, such as the Pike outlet, as well as flotation devices that could be placed in and around the piers. Some floats are equipped with live cameras and signals that allow 911 dispatchers to recognize that the device has been activated at a specific location.

The group recognizes funding will be a challenge but it also looked to see which businesses and nonprofits, as well as elected officials, step up to help bring water safety to the fore.

One thing for sure is it takes a community willing to come together to prevent drownings.

Traumatic experience

“It was traumatic to say the least. But, you know it’s very personal for me,” Raquet said of his experience. “I know that you’re trying to make policy here. So somewhere between the personnel and the policy maybe there’s some traction there,” he told the group.

Following the meeting, he said he realized he and the young girl were both fortunate to be alive as there was only one of four outcomes during the rescue, three of which involved death of at least one of them.

“It was really no thought or decision, it was just a call to action. My reaction,” he said. “I was very fortunate to be in that 25 percent (where both live).”


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