Pool, Waterpark and Beach Safety

An in-depth look at the biggest risks facing aquatic facilities

By Mitch Martin

If anyone ever doubts the inherent danger of watery environments, that doubt can be quickly quashed by a look at a 2001 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission alert. In that publication, the commission reported that since 1984, 275 young children have drowned in one of the most mundane of household cleaning items: the 5-gallon bucket. Many of the toddlers and infants died when they were left alone for very short amounts of time by caregivers.

By this simple example, the water-related risks and hazards are just as great—if not obviously more complex—for pools and waterparks, or any place else where people and water are put in the equation.

While aquatic programming is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the recreation world, it is also the most in need of rigorous safety programs.

For example, drowning is the second leading cause of injury death for children from the age of one to 14, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In 1998, 940 drowning deaths occurred among these young children, according to the CDC.

A new lifeguard station (named Griff's Guard
Station) is designed to help guards change
position and stay alert.

Statistics such as these have made the aquatic manager as attuned as any recreational professional to safety issues. At the same time, no sub-field of recreation management receives such a deluge of changing advice, regulation and alerts that the aquatic manager does.

Therefore, this article will focus on five hot issues in aquatic safety—both emerging safety trends and long-standing problem areas that have concrete solutions.

It will come as little surprise that the lifeguard is at the center of much of this discussion, as he or she is the frontline of defense against catastrophic water injury or drowning.

Open water areas, lakes and beachfronts pose the unique problems of an uncontrolled environment. And facility and maintenance issues, while often routine, are critically important to maintaining a safe and fun place for aquatic activity.


Once a peaceful and easygoing summer job, lifeguarding has come under scrutiny down to the smallest detail. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the vigilance of airport security screeners came into question. Security screeners work for relatively low wages in an often monotonous job that strains the very limits of attention spans. So in the wake of the attacks, it is not altogether surprising that federal transportation officials began to question whether security screeners were actually alert when dangerous items appeared on their X-ray machines.

This job is not dissimilar to lifeguarding. While lifeguarding is in some ways intrinsically more active than other security professions, it also has one bad habit that almost no other security force has.

"It is the only surveillance and security profession in America that promotes sitting down," says Tom Griffiths, director of aquatics and safety officer for athletics at Penn State University.

The lifeguard chair runs counter to the accepted wisdom of these other professions. Griffiths refers to the Seinfeld episode in which character George Costanza provides a security guard with a chair, causing the security guard to fall asleep and miss a theft.

Perhaps one of the first questions an aquatic manager might want ask him or herself is this: Are my lifeguards really paying attention?

The answer in many cases is: not as much as they should be.

Griffiths says in many of his surveys of lifeguards, they reported their own struggle to stay alert and follow proper scanning procedures.

The constant pressures of vigilance
and accountability are high for
lifeguards and aquatic managers.

Griffiths based his research on the surveys as well as governmental studies on vigilance-testing jobs such as wartime radar operators. The accumulated physiological and psychological research showed that task vigilance declines greatly after 15 minutes, he says.

Griffiths' research has lead to his video called the "Five-Minute Scanning Strategy."

"The basic idea is that every five minutes the lifeguard should make a significant change in their scanning posture, from sitting to standing, or standing to strolling," Griffiths says.

By making changes in their posture, as well as their scanning strategy (for example, instead of scanning the pool clockwise, scan counterclockwise), lifeguards can greatly increase their level of alertness. This change is measured, in part, by increases in respiratory rate.

Based on Griffiths' work, a lifeguard station (named Griff's Guard Station) has been developed to be more amenable to changing postures. Much lower than traditional "high-chair" style lifeguard chairs, the station resembles a high-railed, one-person bleacher, allowing for sitting, standing in the station and easy movement in and out of the station. The station may also reduce the incidence of slip and fall injuries to lifeguards associated with the traditional lifeguard chair.

Griffiths says the five-minute scanning strategy can and should be adapted to the facility where it is used. He notes that some smaller aquatic facilities may find some of the guidelines difficult to follow and maintain.

"I encourage it being adapted to what best suits the needs of a particular facility," he says. "The key thing is you don't want to have your lifeguard just sitting in the chair, for 20 minutes, half an hour or 45 minutes getting drowsy."


Another key word for improving aquatic safety is "accountability," which is often a way of checking for vigilance. The popular image of lifeguarding is that of a carefree, laid-back job. However, lifeguards are being held to an ever-stricter standard of professionalism so they can provide the safest water environment possible.

In Indianapolis, Ind., Indy Parks and Recreation has developed a program that promotes a sense of responsibility among the department's lifeguards.

"Most lifeguards are young and have never been in the work force, let alone had a job with the level of responsibility inherent in lifeguarding," says Elaine Dillahunt, aquatics manager for the parks department. "I think having a standard and really impressing it on them matters as much as what the standard is."

Indy Parks uses the standards of the Kingwood, Texas-based aquatic safety consulting firm Jeff Ellis & Associates. One performance standard is the 10-20 guideline, in which every lifeguard is required to be able to detect a safety issue in their zone within 10 seconds, then be able to respond effectively in an additional 20 seconds. The standard is based on the amount of time an average victim can be expected to struggle above water plus the amount of time they can hold their breath after submerging.

Dillahunt says her lifeguards are subject to audits both from Ellis and from their own department auditor. The internal audit involves three major parts. One is the use of videotape. The lifeguards are videotaped without their knowledge on a regular basis. Checking for vigilance on videotape is surprisingly simple.

"We teach that the scanning should begin and end below their chair and so every 10 seconds you should see their head returning to just below their chair," Dillahunt says.

Secondly, staff administrators stage an emergency scenario, such as a spinal injury or drowning. Only select staff members are warned, including the cashier, because it is that person's job to notify emergency responders. Dillahunt says the scenarios are staged with a good deal of realism to improve the ability to measure a lifeguard's reaction. She says neither lifeguards or patrons are offended by such scenarios.

"We receive really positive feedback on this," Dillahunt says. "The public is impressed and reassured when they see the performance of the lifeguards. And the lifeguards, I think, really like the opportunity to show their stuff."

The third part of the audit is administrative, including spot checks of chemical logs and other paperwork.

Accountability and vigilance pressure does have a potential drawback. By putting more pressure to perform on teens and young adults, an administrator who does not do so diplomatically may leave lifeguards reconsidering their choice of what is a relatively low-paying job.

Debbie Dorsey, the aquatics director at the Georgia Tech Student Athletic Complex, says she felt the younger generation of lifeguards are not always well motivated. She believes as lifeguards are held to a higher standard, it is critical that administrators work very hard to make the job enjoyable and rewarding.

"From the outside you could ask the question, 'why would you do this job when there's many other jobs that pay a lot more and have much less responsibility?'" Dorsey says. "At Georgia Tech, we are always trying to find ways to increase the perks."

Dillahunt says she felt her lifeguards initially felt added pressure from the auditing process, but added they now view it as a healthy challenge.

"Sometimes you'll have a particular pool that doesn't get audited in a particular round of audits, and the lifeguards are disappointed because they want to prove how good they are," Dillahunt says.

Disaster planning

Aquatic facility managers don't often think of themselves as disaster officials, but that should change, Michael Edwards says. Edwards is the director of Georgia Tech Athletic and Recreational Facilities Planning and Management. Along with Dorsey, he lent his organizational expertise as an event coordinator the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Edwards says that because of the size and nature of swim meets and similar gatherings, aquatics directors are basically event managers. And part of the responsibility of an event manager is to have a plan in place for large-scale emergencies or disasters.

"We as a group do a great job with risk management in terms of lifeguarding and other medical-related emergencies. I don't think we do as good a job of preparing our emergency procedures," Edwards says.

In the wake of Sept. 11, that should change, Edwards says.

"If you had a swim meet in the middle of winter in North Dakota, would you be able to get a thousand people out of the building if you had to?" Edwards says. "That's the sort of thing we need to think about for the future."

Starting blocks

Perhaps one of the biggest issues in competition aquatic facilities stems from the movement to remove starting blocks from the shallow end.

Several national organizations and many high-school interscholastic associations at the state level have greatly increased the minimum depth for starts from diving blocks.

Alison Osinski is an aquatics consultant specializing in risk management and aquatic facility design, as well as other areas of the aquatics industry. Osinski says the debate began when swimming starts changed from a flat dive to more of a piking dive.

Osinski and other experts now recommend that diving not be allowed in water with less than a nine-foot depth. Other organizations have developed a five-foot standard. Osinski says she recommends the nine-foot standard (or in-water starts) because at that depth spinal injuries are nearly impossible.

Open-water recreation poses its own set of
safety challenges.

However, some swimming coaches still support shallow-water, shallow-dive standards and expressed concern that the new standards will decrease swimmer's diving ability.

"It is true that injuries at five feet are unlikely, but you have to look at how catastrophic those injuries are when they do occur," Osinski says. "You're not talking about someone breaking their leg, you're talking about quadriplegia."

In many older pools, workers can simply switch the starting blocks to the deep end, which may not be deep enough for diving boards in any event. However, costs can increase if timing systems, diving boards or other modifications outside the pool need to be changed or upgraded along with moving the blocks.

Osinski says if facility managers don't follow her strict nine-foot recommendation, they should at least take the matter seriously.

"You need to look at the issue for your own facilities, go out and do the research, and don't just depend on what another group is doing," she says. "You might, for instance, decide to have a single starting block in a pool without nine feet, but have it out only with direct supervision to teach proper diving techniques."

Perception at sea

In the uncontrolled environments of the ocean and larger lakefronts, safety experts say stressing the simple concepts to patrons is as important as anything else. For example, Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, Calif., has been running Project Wipeout since the early 1990s, after a brief discontinuation of the original program that began in the 1970s.

Project Wipeout is a community health outreach program that works to prevent the catastrophic injuries associated with surfing as well as other beach safety issues. Kris Okamoto, a registered nurse at Hoag who is also the coordinator of Project Wipeout, says her hospital is beginning to see lower-leg injuries associated with the newer sport of skimboarding. Skimboarders, in a sense, surf in reverse in that they start on the wet sand, following the pull of the receding waves, before heading back sand-ward toward the beach.

Okamoto says education is particularly important in the oceanfront environment because people are both very drawn to the ocean and have difficulty perceiving its dangers.

"It might sound ridiculous, but one thing we find ourselves continually stressing is don't go out in the ocean if you don't know how to swim well," Okamoto says.


Project Wipeout advises people not to go into the surf if they can't maintain an overhead stroke for 15 minutes.

Diving issues are particularly important to teach because of perception issues. Operation Wipeout advises people never to run into the beach and dive into the water or to jump from a pier or jetty. In both cases, serious injury can result when water appears deeper than it actually is.

Another common problem is the deceptively benign appearance of sand. Californians partying on the beach often attempt to put fires out by covering them with sand, but actually create an oven-like pocket of fire, invisible to beachgoers. Child burns have become all too common from this problem, and California lifeguards are routinely given first-responder burn training.

Perhaps the most subtle safety issue is the allure of the surf zone. Drawn by the display of the breaking waves, people can be carried away by even relatively small amounts of surf spray.

"I've seen very powerful men knocked off their feet in what doesn't look like that much water," Okamoto says.

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