|One of our readers recently directed our attention to a video program called Cold Water Boot Camp, produced by the National Water Safety Congress. A link to the program showed up on the web site of the National Association of Boating Law Administrators. Cold Water Boot Camp has its own web site with lots of additional video footage. In the program, eight volunteers, dressed in sweat shirts and pants, jump from a support boat into 45°F water. The host points out all the usual factors of cold-water immersion: cold shock, the gasp reflex, swimming failure and hypothermia. That’s all to the good. Boaters need to be educated about hypothermia and videos make it quite clear that cold water is mentally and physically debilitating. The stated point of Cold Water Boot Camp is to teach boaters “how to survive an accidental cold water immersion,” yet the only recommendation it makes is for boaters to wear their life jackets. The program consistently uses the term “life jacket.” PFD, or personal flotation device, is more accurate because a functioning PFD will keep you afloat, but it won’t necessarily save your life.
The program promotes a “1-10-1” principle: “DO NOT PANIC, because you have: 1 minute to get your breathing under control, 10 minutes of meaningful movement, 1 hour before you become unconscious due to Hypothermia.” Cold comfort, indeed. An article we published recently on the effects of cold water immersion covered the same issues of breathing problems, muscle failure and hypothermia, but if we were to sum up these issues to apply them to the “1-10-1” principle, our approach would be quite different: DRESS FOR IMMERSION, because if you don’t: you’ll be susceptible to inhaling water for 1 minute and have only 10 minutes to help yourself before you’re incapacitated, but you’ll get a whole hour to chastise yourself.
The host points out a misconception people have about hypothermia. Referring to a chart showing responses to a poll on hypothermia, he notes that most people believed that hypothermia set in quickly, in less than 10 minutes. In reality, the host noted, “hypothermia will only set in in 30 minutes or longer.” His emphasis on “only” suggested that time is on the victim’s side. “Even in ice water it will take one hour before you become unconscious due to hypothermia, only if you have a life jacket on. Because there’s no way without a life jacket that you can keep your head above water long enough. So a life jacket really increases your chances of survival, as we all know. You’re trying to increase your survival time and even if you can increase it ten minutes or an hour that can make the difference between living and dying.”
Wearing a PFD does not significantly increase the 2 to 10 minutes the host says you have before “cold incapacitation” sets in. In an area frequented by other boats you might get lucky. But the point the voice-over makes—that the volunteers in the water without life jackets “would have drowned if they didn’t have someone to rescue them”—holds true for swimmers with “life jackets” on. The only difference is in the time they have. Without another boat nearby, the increased survival time a PFD gives you is like the increased survival time you have jumping out of an airplane, without a parachute, at 10,000 feet as opposed to 5,000 feet.
On one of the CWBC web site videos, one of the volunteers, Alice, jumps in to the water wearing a PFD. She stays afloat, but the effects of the cold sweep over her. The host, standing in the sun on the deck of a cabin cruiser says: “We have proved the point. She could sit there indefinitely until she became unconscious due to hypothermia. She’s not going to drown right now. The life jacket is the answer.” You can hear Alice whimpering in the water. Take the support boats out of the picture and leave Alice surrounded by water. Is the life jacket the answer? Well, thanks for playing, Alice.
I don’t mean to demean the work these organizations are doing. Getting people to wear PFDs will save lives, but suggesting that wearing a PFD is an adequate measure against cold-water immersion is telling only a part of the story. Dressing for immersion, having plans for self-rescue, and carrying signaling equipment deserved more than the very brief mention at the end of the video. While the host focused our attention on the shivering volunteers and asked them how they were doing, he should have drawn our attention to the safety swimmers, who were dressed in dry suits and neoprene gloves and hoods, and asked them how they were doing.