They were just a family of three out at the beach. The lifeguards were off-duty, and the parents thought they were watching their child play in the water. But they were really watching her drown. This incident, which took place in 1972 at Orchard Beach in the Bronx, N.Y., where Frank Pia, Ph.D., worked, motivated him to investigate further. If drowning victims were so obvious (as the aquatics professionals then believed) how could parents not recognize their own child was in trouble? What he found was that the parents, as well as thousands of other people, don’t recognize the signs of drowning.
“I saw there was a need to reach out to the lifeguards and to the general public,” says the 62-year-old president of Pia-Enterprises.com in Larchmont, N.Y. Through his research, he created and produced a series of groundbreaking videos that visually illustrate the signs, titled “On Drowning,” “Drowning: Facts & Myths,” and “The Reasons People Drown.”
More than 30 years later, he’s still using “The Reasons People Drown” to deliver his message. He shows them to PTA groups, camp associations, health officials, and anyone else willing to listen and learn. He’s teaching lifeguards and patrons that “there is a response that is instinctive to drowning and they need to be alert. It’s very quick, lasting about 20 to 60 seconds with enormous implications.”
Pia has been involved with the Red Cross in a number of facets, including as a member of the technical advisory committee and the Advisory Council for First Aid and Safety. He’s one of three aquatic representatives to ACFAS and reviews issues related to aquatics and psychology as well. He’s also one of three representatives on the U.S. Lifeguard Standards Coalition.
He’s noticed lifeguarding is more open to incorporating other fields of study. For example, Pia says psychology has played an important role in shaping vigilance and scanning. He believes that future pools will feature a blended surveillance system, relying on lifeguards and drowning detection systems.
Despite all his efforts, Pia’s work isn’t finished. “Even after 30 years of work, after seeing actual film footage of people drowning, there are still some people resistant to the idea that [once] someone gets into the water over their head that they respond instinctively,” he says. But, he plans to continue sending the message out to people. “It’s been an easily 40-year endeavor on my part.”