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Supplement Feature - February 2014

Buoyed by Innovation

The Latest Trends in Aquatic Staffing

By Chris Gelbach


As recreation managers consider how they staff their facilities and train their lifeguards and pool operators, new approaches are buoying them toward more efficient operations and enhanced patron safety. A growing recognition of the weaknesses in staffing approaches today is helping to define this new direction.

An Embrace of Standards

One weakness being addressed is a lack of universal standards. Aquatic facilities have traditionally been regulated by a patchwork of varying local, state and federal codes. To bring greater safety and consistency to aquatic operations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has neared completion of its Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC).

After several years of effort, the first edition of the long-awaited resource will be published this summer. It will have a significant influence on the development of aquatic standards at every level—including aquatic staffing.

"In the aquatics industry, there are so many gray areas, a lot of times, companies or individuals don't want to say 'this is what you have to do'," said Juliene Hefter, executive director and CEO of the Association of Aquatic Professionals. "This [the MAHC] will provide that feedback, and that's going to become the standard of care, and you could have issues occur if you're not going to be following those recommendations."

According to Michael Beach, Ph.D., associate director for Healthy Water in CDC's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, one area in which the MAHC will provide more guidance than many existing state and local codes is in its emphasis on facility operators.

Beach noted that about one quarter of the diarrheal illness outbreaks point to operator error, since they are outbreaks that should never occur if a pool is being operated properly. And in a CDC sample study that looked at more than 120,000 pool inspections, one in eight pools were closed immediately because of serious public health violations.

"We really need people to understand that when it comes to pool operators—we have to professionalize this—it's not a trivial issue to operate a pool," Beach said. "There are many opportunities in which we can cause illness and injury. In these chemical outbreaks and injuries that we see, the person didn't have a clue. They didn't have the training."

To help facilities in their aquatic operations, the first edition of the MAHC will also include checklists of the things the pool operator should look at daily. "It's supported by the outbreaks we see," Beach said. "If an alarm was going off for three days, that says nobody went in the pump room for three days. It's not earth-shattering; it's just saying we've got to routinize it and check these things on a regular basis. Because when we don't, that's when we have the chemical injuries, drownings and outbreaks."

The MAHC will provide training guidance for pool operators as well as for lifeguards and lifeguard supervisors. "It doesn't say who needs to be trained or how many people," Beach said. "It says what needs to be done."

The code will also detail the need for record-keeping—something that Hefter sees as a weakness today that could haunt many aquatic facilities should they have a serious incident on site. "You need to be able to go back seven years to say, 'This is all the training that I provided for my staff. These are the drills that we've done. This is who was in charge of them; these are the certifications of the staff.' And unfortunately, I go to a lot of facilities that don't keep those records," she said.

Experts agree that establishing more universal standards will go a long way toward enhancing patron safety—they just need to be the right standards. B. Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), a national association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers, noted a prominent example in the surf lifeguarding world.

"We work very closely with the American Red Cross, which has open water lifeguard training, but they make a strong point that the training is not intended for and not appropriate for the surf environment," Brewster said. "Despite this, many of the [surf] lifeguard agencies in New England are using Red Cross training as their basic requirement. So we've been working in that area to encourage them to reevaluate that."

For those managers whose surf beach operations do not meet USLA standards, Brewster recommends the standards as a guidepost. "It would be a worthwhile exercise for a manager to say, 'Go to the USLA website, look at what the standards are and tell me where we're meeting them and where we aren't.' Even if they don't want to become USLA certified, that's an easy way for them to find out where there may be weak points in their operation."

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