Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Educated Instinct

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on January 15, 2014

Lioness ProtectsA father died trying to save his two sons caught in a rip current this week.  In an all too typical scenario, a British family on holiday in Australia finds a secluded and unguarded beach, the boys were caught in a rip and the father instinctively went to the rescue. The debate will rage, should the beach have been guarded? Why did they ignore the clear signs about rips? Why did the father rush in? But I believe we in the drowning prevention field need to focus our attention on looking at how we could have created a different outcome. We need to look at how we could have changed the father’s educated instinct.

Caleb Starrenburg eloquently explored the issue of would-be rescuers losing their lives in his recent article, stating that, “What can be done to prevent rescuers sacrificing their lives has proven a dilemma for water safety experts. The challenges are twofold – not only are we wired from a young age to act altruistically in these sorts of life-and-death situations, but we have a tendency to overestimate our ability in the water, while underestimating the danger it poses.”

Parents are hard-wired to save their children, they operate on instinct. Our job is to turn instinct into educated instinct when it comes to water safety.

We can educate and change instinctual responses with consistent repetitive messages.

Let me start by giving you two examples – of pure instinct and of educated instinct – and then I’ll talk about how consistent messages can turn instinct into educated instinct.

When my daughter was 3 months old I was walking her to soothe her at the end of a long day and stepped on a wooden block. My feet went flying behind me and I pitched violently forward, landing hard on my knees and elbows on the the stone floor. Not one bit of my infant daughter touched the unforgiving floor and no harm befell her. In a split-second, with no conscious thought, I had curled myself around her, with no thought to my personal safety. It took weeks for my bruises to fade, and much longer for the horror of ‘what if’ to subside. In such a case, where a split-second decision is called for, we have no hope of overriding the parental instinct to protect or save their child.

When my daughter was 7 years old, she woke me at 5am, crying hysterically. Emerging out of a deep sleep I looked over to see a horror show standing by my bed. She was glowing in the dark. Literally. It took less than a minute for my brain to work through the options and make sense of her garbled words. Process of elimination – look to the window, no weird lights reflecting on her. Keep blinking thinking something has gone terribly wrong with my eyesight. Finally hear the words ‘glow stick’ through the tears and my brain whips through the rest of the story faster than a super-computer. She had received a glow stick at a party the night before. I didn’t need to know the ‘why’ or ‘how’, I knew she had luminescent chemicals all over her face and front, including her eyes. I leaped out of bed, ran her into the bathroom, ripped off her jammies and stuck her under a shower with strict and calm instructions to keep her face pointed into the water for 10 minutes. By the end of the 10 minutes I had woken my son and told him to get dressed, got dressed myself, fished the glow stick packaging out of the garbage, dried and dressed my daughter, and was in the car heading to the emergency room. I had done everything right. I had heard the messages about safety consistently and repetitively since I was a child – in Girl Scouts, in First Aid training and recertification, in health class at school. Rinse the area for 10 minutes in clear, running water and then seek medical help. This is educated instinct, when your child (or other loved one) is in a traumatic and potentially dangerous situation and you are able to, without conscious thought, reach into your memory to retrieve the correct action and calmly follow through.

The key to creating educated instinct is repetitive and consistent messaging. STOP. Don’t drink and drive. Fasten your seatbelt. Look both ways before you cross the street. Stop, drop and roll. All are public safety messages that work because they are used consistently and repetitively until they infiltrate the brain and become educated instinct. We don’t go through a long thought process weighing our options or creating new possible actions when we see a red light, we stop.

Consistent and repetitive public safety messages work.

We need to commit to using consistent and repetitive water safety messages. We need to stop using our creative talents with the words and stick with the basics. ‘Rinse the area in clean, running water for 10 minutes and seek medical help’ came to the forefront of my mind because it had been consistently and repetitively hammered home over many years. We have the messages. Caleb refers to the Reach, Throw, Row approach for rescuing. Another good starting point for communication campaigns is using the International Open Water Safety Guidelines  developed by an international task force. We need to commit to using these messages, not creatively, but verbatim, repetitively and consistently. If we all, repetitively and consistently, start using the words ‘Swim in areas with lifeguards.’, over time those words, and the actions, will become as deeply ingrained as Stop. People will see a beach and think ‘I need to swim in areas with lifeguards’. We will have created educated instinct in a large segment of the population.

If we are going to change behavior around water and make people safer around water, we must commit to consistent and repetitive messages. Are you in?

Click here to tweet ‘We need to commit to consistent and repetitive basic water safety messages http://bit.ly/1eDqqgi @rebeccasavekids #stopdrowning’

p.s. My luminescent daughter was fine, the chemicals were non-toxic, but on the way home from the hospital a skunk sprayed the car, it was one of those days. I think I decided I needed a swim before I even managed the breakfast dishes, much less work. Personally, I’m impressed I didn’t suddenly develop a taste for Scotch….at 7am.

I hope you enjoy the photo of the lioness instinctually protecting her cubs. It is one of my favorites. I find it to be a vivid reminder – we can not counteract that powerful instinct to protect, we can only respect and work to educate the instinct.

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