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Feature Article - January 2014

On the Safe Side

Make Your Aquatic Center Safe (and Fun!) From the Ground Up

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Without a doubt, keeping patrons of a pool or aquatic center safe while they're enjoying the water is of utmost importance to everyone involved. And, it practically goes without saying that having a well-trained lifeguarding and management staff is key to accomplishing this goal. But these guys don't operate in a vacuum, and the physical aspects of your facility—everything from its layout and design to its play features and lighting to its pumps and chemical-handling systems—have an impact on how well your guards, managers and maintenance staff can do their jobs.

Sure, there are codes in place to make sure public and commercial pools meet certain standards, but basing your facility's physical features on code requirements is "like shopping in the generic aisle at the grocery store," said Matt Freeby, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB, an architect with Water Technology, an aquatic design firm with offices in Beaver Dam, Wis., and Dallas. "You'll get sustenance, but that's not where most people want to shop."

Codes usually represent the baseline, he continued. And the uses for aquatic facilities can multiply more quickly than codes can keep up. Add in strapped government budgets that limit the number of inspectors available, and it's clear that merely passing inspection each season may not be enough. Steve White, a Certified Service Professional and president of Underwater Pool Masters in Worcester, Mass., agrees. "We're not only up to code for the pools we maintain, we're also ahead of the curve."

That seems like a smart place to be when there are literally lives on the line. So, whether you're planning a new aquatic center or wanting to make sure you've done everything you can to make your current pool or waterpark a fun, safe place to get some much-needed exercise, read on for our best tips to keep public health and safety, as well as entertainment and enjoyment, at the forefront of what your facility has to offer.

Design Features

Today, he's an architect designing aquatic centers, but growing up, Matt Freeby was a competitive swimmer and a lifeguard. He still remembers his first outdoor guarding job: a big 50-meter pool with locker rooms along one side. The guard chair on the locker room side of the deep end was dubbed the death chair. "It was like playing Russian roulette," Freeby said. "When you were sitting there, it was only a matter of time until you had to go in and get someone." The problem? Kids would come zipping out of the locker room, totally excited to swim, and splash into the water before they realized it was the deep end. Or they'd see the diving board right in front of them and decide to go for it, remembering only later that they weren't quite able to swim to the side.

"So, placement of shallow water is crucial," Freeby said. Look at how people enter the pool, and make sure it's not deep water that immediately presents itself. This is a good planning note for those in the design phase, but if you already have a pool with this very problem, create some barriers—fencing or roping, or even a row of potted plants—that will divert traffic out of the locker room toward water 24 inches deep or less. Also consider adjusting your access point if the first water patrons encounter out of the locker room is moving water, like a lazy river or wave pool.

Another consideration, if you're in the planning phase of a project, is that "most pools are just too deep," according to Dr. Tom Griffiths, president and founder of the Aquatic Safety Research Group LLC. Shallow water is defined as anything less than 5 feet, but most American children don't grow that tall until they're about 12 years old. Instead, Griffiths recommends a maximum depth of 3.5 feet. More and more family leisure pools are adopting this standard, he said, and "everyone's in the water having a good time."

Also, be sure you choose wisely as you select the materials you'll use for your pool deck and other surfaces, particularly if your facility is outdoors. Of course you need nonslip flooring or decking, even when it's wet, but think about more than just beauty and color as you're choosing materials. Dark or colored concrete or terrazzo can absorb sunlight and sizzle swimmers' bare feet. Look for nonslip materials that shed heat, rather than retain it, and whatever your pool deck is made of, make sure you have practices in place to keep it clean and as dry as possible throughout the day, White suggested.

In addition, adequate lighting in the water is important in helping guards see what's happening beneath the surface, particularly in water deeper than 5 feet and for pools that are open at night. LED lighting is one of the newer options available and offers long-lasting bulbs and brighter underwater light. However, Freeby said that in some cases this may be an area where the code has not caught up, and your state may require more in-pool lights than you'll really want if you're using LEDs.

Finally, as you're deciding on the layout of your aquatic center's features, determining the best places for seating and structures around the pool, or considering an addition to your facility, be sure you keep your lifeguards' sight lines and ability to communicate with one another in mind. If your pool is sometimes open without guards (or with limited guards), consider how your other staff can be made aware when assistance is needed in the water.

Ray Swoop, manager and certified pool operator at Worcester Fitness in Worcester, Mass., said that the facility's lap pool does not have a guard, but there are two closed-circuit cameras in the pool area that are monitored by staff at the front desk. Another option? Alert systems that sound a siren when a sensor or panic button is tripped in the water can bring help quickly to manage the situation while the lifeguard or swim instructor assists the swimmer in trouble.

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