The Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority announced Friday that it was eliminating the use of the Heimlich maneuver for drowning victims at the five water parks it operates in Alexandria city and Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties.
The announcement came after a story in The Washington Post Friday reported that the Heimlich maneuver — abdominal thrusts used to dislodge solid items from the airway of a choking person — has been widely discredited in the medical and first-aid communities for use on drowning victims.
The parks authority, which operates water parks at Cameron Run in Alexandria, Upton Hill in Arlington, Pohick Bay and Bull Run in Fairfax and Algonkian in Loudoun, said the maneuver was rarely used, and only until cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, could be administered.
“There is a public misconception that abdominal thrusts may have been used in place of CPR,” said Paul Gilbert, the authority’s executive director. “That couldn’t be further from the truth; this technique was an optional four- to six-second method to be used in very rare circumstances before CPR could be administered. As such, it was never a very central part of our lifeguards’ protocols.”
Gilbert said the parks authority would continue to use the Houston-based National Aquatics Safety Company to train its lifeguards. Gilbert said he believed that NASCO’s lifeguard training program, tailored for water parks, is the most rigorous in the nation.
Founded and directed by John Hunsucker, NASCO trains lifeguards at water parks around the country. But experts said it was one of the few companies that still incorporates the Heimlich maneuver into its lifeguard protocols.
Lifeguards trained by NASCO continuously scan the water rather than chat with patrons, Gilbert said, and are “where our pools really outshine other water parks and community pools.” He noted that a Centers for Disease Control study found drownings occur at a rate of 0.6 people per 100,000, and that pools with NASCO-trained personnel have a rate 100 times less than that.
Doctors who have studied drowning said that contrary to popular belief, water does not pour into the lungs during lengthy underwater submersion. Instead, it is absorbed into the bloodstream, making the restoration of oxygen the most urgent priority.
As a result, numerous experts told The Post, squeezing more air out of a drowning victim by abdominal thrusts is not only counterproductive but delays CPR and could cause vomiting and other complications or harm already damaged internal organs.