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11 Aug 2022

What your kids need to know about the dangers of open water swimming in a heatwave

What your kids need to know about the dangers of open water swimming in a heatwave

Every time the weather gets hot  and sticky, there is devastating news of children and young people getting into difficulties as they cool off in open water.

Recently, a 16-year-old boy died in the Aire and Calder Navigation canal in Wakefield, and the body of another 16-year-old boy was recovered from water filling an abandoned quarry in Wigan.

And as the heatwave continues, The Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS UK, rlss.org.uk) warns that even if a child or young person is a good swimmer and open water looks safe, there can be many hidden dangers.

The charity say that in July 2021 there were 49 accidental drowning fatalities in the space of just two weeks in the UK.

“We understand this hot weather brings excitement and sees people heading to the water for fun or to cool off,” says Lee Heard, charity director at RLSS UK. “But it’s vital to ensure that everyone has an understanding of water safety and makes it their responsibility to educate family and friends on how water can be enjoyed safely to prevent any tragedies.”

Heard says the charity’s research has found more than 55% of parents wouldn’t feel confident that their child would know what to do if they fell into open water.

“We’re seeing lots of young people heading to various waterways including quarries and lakes, but unfortunately they don’t have experience of swimming in these environments,” he adds.

Here’s what parents should make sure children and young people know about the dangers of cooling off in open water…

1. Cold water can kill

RLSS UK says all waters in and around the UK and Ireland are cold enough to cause cold water shock, even in summer. This shock can make swimming difficult  – you may start to hyperventilate and your blood pressure may shoot up as your body tries to keep the blood warm by moving it towards the middle of your body. As the muscles cool, strength, endurance and muscle control reduce to the point when you may not be able to swim any longer and could have difficulty getting out of the water.

“They may feel they are strong swimmers in a warm swimming pool, but swimming in open water is a different story entirely, and cold water shock becomes a real factor,” warns Heard.

2. Assess your surroundings

When around water, children need to remember to stop and think. The ‘water safety code’ says to take time to access your surroundings, look for dangers and research local advice.

Heard advises parents to tell children to have a look for possible dangers before getting into any water, including the depth, which may be different in different parts.

3. Remember there may be unseen dangers

There can be many nasty and potentially dangerous surprises lurking under water, including sharp objects, and weeds that legs can get tangled in. “Underwater objects and hazards may not be visible,” warns Heard.

4. Find out about currents

There may be strong currents in seas and rivers, which may not be at all obvious from the surface but could challenge even the strongest swimmers. There may be signs warning about currents, or local people may know.

“Strong currents can rapidly sweep people away,” says Heard. “If you find yourself caught in a riptide, don’t swim against it – you’ll tire yourself out. Swim with the current and call for help.”

5. Look out for lifeguards and safety equipment

If there are lifeguards at an open water site, or even safety equipment like lifebelts, clearly the water is a lot safer. “If there’s a lack of safety equipment, there’s increased difficulty for rescue,” warns Heard.

6. Float to live

Parents should make sure children know that floating could help save their lives if they get into difficulty in open water. “Float to live,” says Heard. “If you fall in or become tired, stay calm, float on your back and call for help, or if you see someone in the water, throw something that floats to them and resist temptation to go in.”

7. Make sure you’re with friends

Always go swimming with friends or family. “Stay together when around water and always go with family and friends, so if anything goes wrong you’ve got someone there to help,” advises Heard.

8. Stay near the shore

Warn kids not to swim too far away from the shore.  “Always swim parallel to the shore, that way you’re never too far away from it,” he adds.

9. Know what to do in an emergency

It’s vital that parents make sure their children know what to do if something goes wrong, stresses Heard – “In an emergency call 999 and ask for the Fire and Rescue service when inland and the Coastguard if at the coast.”

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