Feature Article - February 2004
Find a printable version here

In the Swim

The Best Strategies for Aquatic Center Peak Performance

By Kim Tobin


Safety firsts

While great design helps keep attendance rates in the swim, without the right risk management practices, the lives of your patrons and the future of your facility could be in jeopardy.

On the big risk level, drowning, water quality, diving, and electrocution are crucial areas of any facility's safety program.

Factors that can affect the drowning potential at a facility can vary from staff training to water clarity to pool markings.

Because it's vital to have the right safety staff, it would seem common sense to ensure that lifeguard staff is up to date with certification. However, different states advocate different certification standards and what is acceptable for a waterpark may not fly at a municipal pool. The correct approach is determining the standards accepted by state and local health departments for your type of facility.

"In some states, the state health department will accept all standards for lifeguards," says Arthur Mittelstaedt Jr., Ed.D., executive director of The Recreation Safety Institute, a safety and risk management advocacy organization based in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. "In others, they're very particular about who the certifying body is. So, it's incumbent upon the facility manager to make sure he knows the state and local health codes that regulate the pool."

Regulatory Update:
Aquatic Play Equipment and Splash Play Areas

With the explosive growth of splash play areas and water play equipment in the past decade, these water wonderlands have spawned much fun for the kiddies—as well as much misinformation regarding their design, use and regulation. Currently, local and state agencies provide little or no guidance for these facilities or equipment, in either design or operation.

New regulations are in the works for these areas, both at the individual state and national levels. Nationwide, ASTM International currently has a committee working on a comprehensive set of baseline safety standards for aquatic play equipment, whether that equipment is for a splash play area or a pool. Although they may be published sometime in 2004, no clear date has been set for the standards. When they do appear, the guidelines will address aspects ranging from equipment operation to water quality and other water safety issues.

With a staff that's certified by the right organization, maximizing lifeguard vigilance is also another important strategy for safeguarding a pool. Because of the fact that sitting down can promote attention lags, lifeguarding is being looked at more closely for ways to improve effective surveillance.

A way to counter this decline in vigilance and increase alertness is for staff to periodically change their postures and scanning strategy (for example, scan the pool counterclockwise instead of clockwise). The five-minute scanning strategy, a technique developed by Tom Griffiths, director of aquatics and safety officer at Penn State University, uses the basic tenet that every five minutes, a lifeguard should make a significant change in their scanning posture, from sitting to standing, or from standing to strolling.

Newer lifeguard stations also have been designed with a lower profile than a traditional "high chair" style lifeguard chair, to help a guard change positions more effectively. The station, which has a bigger platform, resembles a high-railed, one-person bleacher and provides the opportunity to sit or stand and easily move in or out of the station.

Other aids to decrease drowning risk include underwater safety monitoring systems. While some systems include underwater cameras that provide images of the pool bottom for staff to monitor, others use motion detection, which sets off an alarm if a swimmer is on the bottom for too long. The systems are good adjuncts to help ensure protection against drowning incidents, but they should never replace qualified, vigilant staff.

"It's definitely an enhancement to reduce risk, but if you have a camera, and no one uses it, it's useless," Schwartz says. "It may give a false sense of security or risk reduction. You also have to have a system working right so you know what area it's in. If there are multiple pools, you have seconds to look for someone, and if you have to spend minutes deciding where they are, that's obviously an issue. Like any other device, you've got to use it correctly."

Entrapment is also a looming safety issue and has been implicated in many injuries and drownings (which are often reported only as drownings not entrapments because there are no requirements to specify a death as an entrapment). The risk of entrapment, which occurs when parts of the body or hair can get trapped in a suction fitting or drain cover, can be lessened by taking a few precautions, according to industry experts.

Four layers of protection are currently recommended to protect against entrapment. They include: 1) Installing at least two hydraulically balanced main drains per pump. 2) Installing an approved ANSI/NSF-50 drain cover. 3) Installing a safety vacuum release system that reads for sudden increases in vacuum suction (which will happen as soon as an entrapment occurs) and shuts off a pump when an increase registers. 4) Installing an emergency shutoff button or kill switch for the pumps nearby.

Additionally, posting signs that help heighten consumer awareness of the entrapment problem is available. For more information, visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission at www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/363.pdf and the National Spa and Pool Institute at www.nspi.org.