WHITING — A toddler wades into Lake Michigan a little too far and ends up facedown in the water.

A 6-year-old and 3-year-old are walking along the beach, the 3-year-old steps in a low spot and goes under.

"Today could be the day, and what am I going to do?" Bob Pratt, an American Red Cross lifeguard instructor, asked a group of Whiting lifeguards.

A professional lifeguard should be running down all of these scenarios while on duty, he said.

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project is offering training this week for lifeguards and first-responders during four different sessions in Whiting and Michigan City. The sessions are sponsored by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Drowning is among the leading causes of accidental death in the U.S., said Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

"Most people don't know that," he said, "and if they did they'd be more hyper vigilant."

'It's the panic that kills you'

Among children ages 1 to 4, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death. Among children ages 1 to 14, it's the second leading cause of accidental death. Among all Americans, it's the fifth leading cause of death.

Four out of five drowning victims are male, a statistic that stems from an overestimation of swimming abilities, peer pressure and risk-taking behavior.

"So often people say, 'I know how to swim,'" Benjamin said. "The problem is people who know how to swim drown every day.

"It's like saying, 'I know how to run, so I'm going to run a marathon,' " he said.

Benjamin knows the danger of the water firsthand.

He found himself in a fight for his life in December 2010 after a surfing wipeout near Portage.

A wave pushed Benjamin down, and when he came up the waves kept hitting him in the face. When he realized he was no longer tethered to his surfboard, he panicked more.

"It's the panic that kills you," he said.

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But then Benjamin had a moment of clarity: He recalled an article he once read and realized he was showing all the signs of drowning. He stopped struggling and started floating.

"I floated long enough to get my breathing under control and get my sense back," he said.

After swimming to safety, he didn't talk about the experience for several months. In June 2011, he started the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project and has since dedicated his life to educating others about water safety.

Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project has given about 270 presentations in seven of the eight Great Lakes states since 2011, Benjamin said.

Brock Daniels, who swam for Morton High School and has worked for four years as a lifeguard, said Whiting lifeguards take part in mandatory training every Tuesday, but the session with Great Lakes Surf Rescue went more in depth. Swimming in a pool is far different than in Lake Michigan, he said.

Every second counts 

Rip currents are to blame in only about one-third of Great Lakes drownings, he said. People are washed off piers, fall into the water, or jump in and find themselves unable to swim to safety, he said.

There have been approximately 450 drownings on the Great Lakes since 2010, including at least 21 on Indiana's shores, according to statistics compiled by Benjamin's nonprofit.

Only four of those drownings involved someone wearing a life jacket, and hypothermia was a factor in those cases, he said.

If a person is recovered and CPR is performed properly within two minutes, there is a 94 percent chance of survival. After 10 minutes, the chance of survival is reduced to just 14 percent and lifelong brain injury is likely, he said. That's why it's important to swim where a lifeguard is on duty.

The group of lifeguards at Monday morning's session talked about the signs of drowning, dangerous currents and the latest updates regarding CPR for water rescue.

Chest compressions are not enough when performing CPR during a water rescue.

"The sooner we can get this person breathing, the better the outcome is going to be," Pratt said.

Benjamin expected several members of the Chesterton and Michigan City dive teams to attend Monday night's session at Whihala Beach and another Wednesday in Michigan City. Lifeguards from Indiana Dunes State Park and Michigan City also were expected at Wednesday's session.

For tips on water safety, go to http://glsrp.org.

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