12 NEWS DEFENDERS: Trouble in the water - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

12 NEWS DEFENDERS: Trouble in the water

(Source: WSFA 12 News) (Source: WSFA 12 News)
(Source: WSFA 12 News) (Source: WSFA 12 News)

When we think about dangers along the coast, sharks and hurricanes come to mind.

But would you believe that rip currents kill more people than sharks, hurricanes or lightning strikes.

Your first line of defense is to know the dangers before you get in!

"Very little water getting in your airway can cause you to drown," says Orange Beach Safety Director Melvin Shepard.

It takes as little as 60 seconds to drown. Shepard and his team of lifeguards have rescued thousands from the Gulf of Mexico but there were many they weren't able to save like Coral Ronan's father.

"He was a very good swimmer," Coral Ronan said about his father.

In fact, Joe Ronan was the Gulf Shores aquatics director for more than 10 years. Despite his training, he drowned in 2008 while fishing in the Gulf.

"He was in about waist-deep water when a rip current came and swept he and three other men out," Coral Ronan said.

Rip currents are responsible for more than 100 deaths each year. Shephard says most drownings, including Ronan's, happen on "Red Flag Days."

A red flag signals water conditions are hazardous. Shephard says it's important to know what each flag represents.

"Take the time when you get here to notice what flag we have posted for the day, and read what that flag means," Shephard said.

Shepard encourages you not to go in the water on red flag days, but he also warns that you never know when rip currents can flash up.

Knowing what to do if you get caught in a rip current could be the difference between life and death.

Experts say if you are caught in a rip current you should follow these steps:

  • Try to remain calm
  • Do not try to fight the current
  • If you can, wave for help
  • Swim parallel to the beach
  • When out of the current, swim at an angle -- away from the current -- towards shore.
  • If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water and let the current pull you out. Once it's weaker, swim at an angle away from the current.
  • The most important thing to remember -- don't panic!

"The more you struggle, the more tired you become. As they begin to struggle, they can no longer keep themselves afloat. So, they start to stretch their necks keeping their mouths above the water. What happens is that opens your airways so the air in your lungs can escape quickly," Shepard said. "So, the best thing to do is to keep your eyes toward the land. A lot of people think a rip current pulls you under and that's not the case. All they do is pull you away from the shore."

If you do see someone in trouble, don't become a victim, too. Many people drown trying to help someone from a rip current.

If you see someone in need of help, call 911 or alert a lifeguard, if there's one nearby.

After her father's death, Coral Ronan started the R.I.P Foundation to try to get more lifeguards along Alabama's beaches.

"Losing him, I have gained this passion and willingness to stand up and say there is something that can be done," Coral Ronan said.

The safest place to swim is near a lifeguard station. Check with them before swimming.

Lifeguards also caution you about relying on flotation devices. They say it can provide a false sense of security. They add, nothing replaces knowing how to swim.

For more rip current safety tips and how to spot a rip current, visit the National Weather Service website.

To learn about Coral Ronan's R.I.P Foundation check out the group's Facebook page.

Copyright 2014 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.

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