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Feature Article - July 2012

Wet Your Whistle

Improving Aquatic Safety and Aquatic Management

By Kelli Ra Anderson


First, some good news. As the aquatic safety industry moves toward more research-based protocols, responds to laws requiring greater vigilance around drain covers or more stringent regulation to keep pathogens and contaminants at bay, and is enjoying the greatest networking and information-sharing boom in its history, there is hope that the nation's aquatic-related deaths and injuries can be and are being reduced.

The sobering news, however, is that no matter how many laws, new protocols or new ways to keep our aquatic environments safe, the community will only be as safe as its aquatic manager's dedication and skill to follow through on his or her responsibilities to oversee the safety of patrons, the quality of the pool environment and the training and effectiveness of the staff.

The Staff of Life

Thankfully, among the many resources available to such dedicated aquatic managers, a new aquatic management assessment tool is about to be released that will help ensure that nothing critical within all those duties is overlooked.

"All the jobs aquatic managers do are critical," admitted Roy Fielding, participant in the creation of the assessment tool and the aquatics director and senior lecturer and exercise science program coordinator of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, N.C. "But the most challenging is staff training because lifeguards are your front line of individuals' safety, and they have to understand that they're professional rescuers and that it's a serious occupation. There's no compromise there, and you have to set the standards and have them met."

But the million-dollar question is, what standards? What is the standard of expected on-duty behavior of lifeguards? The standard of professional qualification? Or how about the standard of training? Long-time veterans in the industry will tell you that whatever those standards, the quality of the aquatic management style is an essential part of that safety-improving equation, an attitude that sets the bar for everything else.

According to Leland Yarger, coordinator of aquatics and instructor of physical education at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., a facility is a direct reflection of the management and the staff. If poor standards are tolerated, Yarger said that patrons will assume no one cares and respond accordingly. Thankfully, the reverse is also true, as was evidenced at a bathhouse in Holland, Fla., with a reputation for destructive kids. When the facility came under new management that no longer tolerated even small infractions like candy wrappers on the floor, the poor behavior went away, and people took ownership and pride in the facility. Expectations determine the outcome.

"Everyone has their own unique management style," conceded Bob Ogoreuc, professor of aquatic education at Slippery Rock University in Grove City, Penn. "But when I go into a facility, I want to see that lifeguards are vigilant, using their tubes, and that the facility manager isn't absent. Aquatic managers need to be present with an effective line of communication between staff and managers that is encouraging, but where the guards understand the expectations and duties and where managers make sure they are following them by walking around, interacting and reminding them about what's occurring."

One method he has found useful in evaluating lifeguards has been the application of a rubric in which certain lifeguarding skill criteria are noted every 30 seconds (originally a tool used by rookie lifeguards to observe and learn from the vigilance of seasoned veterans), that he now uses to evaluate his own staff to recognize, in concrete terms, where they are doing well and where they need improvement.

And while Ogoreuc is quick to point out that he understands that an aquatic manager's job is obviously administrative, he is also quick to underline the absolute necessity of being physically present, letting the lifeguards know that somebody is monitoring them, making sure they are wearing a tube, have a whistle, and are at their stand, as well as providing for their care to keep them hydrated and shaded.

Yarger couldn't agree more, citing supervision of lifeguards as a major problem reported by a recent study indicating that aquatic directors spend only 20 percent of their time supervising their staff. "Where many aquatic directors are failing miserably is daily supervision of staff," Yarger said. "I can't emphasize that enough. Plenty of organizations have lifeguards, but many times there's no supervisor because the aquatic director is also the athletic director and they end up splitting their day."

One solution to the problem is to hire a lifeguard manager who can be present, day in and day out, to oversee the lifeguards the entire time they are operating. "This is foreign to a lot of aquatic directors," Ogoreuc admitted. "They hire the lifeguards as professionals, but you need to verify their work and the only way is supervision."