Aquatic Pros Talk Safety
Facility Audits, Staff Training, Swim Lessons & More
"Drowning is Preventable!" So goes the motto of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, whose mission is to reduce the incidence of drowning and aquatic injuries. And according to NDPA Board President Melissa Sutton, many members of the organization are public aquatic facilities. "Every year, leadership from municipal pools, waterparks, military branch pools, etc., come to the National Water Safety Conference presented by NDPA to learn about programs that are making a difference in communities, impactful messages, cutting-edge technology, data, stats, legislation, best practices and innovative training to implement into their programs and educate their communities on all the layers of protection that need to be in place to keep their patrons safer around water."
NDPA recognizes that multiple strategies are necessary to prevent drowning, including supervision, physical barriers like fences and pool covers, alarms, rescue equipment, CPR knowledge, education and more. "It's imperative when educating about water safety to include all of the layers of protection as we never know which layer will save a life, until it does," said Sutton. "We know that education is the most effective way to decrease the drowning numbers. Knowledge is power."
According to Sutton, this starts with teaching preschoolers to alert adults if a friend or sibling is struggling; encouraging teenagers to learn CPR or receive lifeguard training; educating parents on making backyard swimming environments safer; and helping seniors understand the importance of having a "buddy" with them in the water in case of a medical event. "These simple steps save lives."
Shawn DeRosa has been a lifeguard and lifeguard instructor trainer, a pool operator and aquatics director. He now operates DeRosa Aquatic Consulting, an education and training company specializing in aquatic safety and risk management. One service he provides is conducting facility inspections and program audits. "Facility inspections provide a third-party assessment of facilities and equipment, and may result in recommendations for new equipment or adjustments to operations," explained DeRosa. "The purpose of a program audit is to take a holistic view of a facility and how it manages its aquatic areas, and provide recommendations to streamline operations, improve efficiencies, enhance safety and help provide insight into the standards and best practices common in the industry."
If a facility has lifeguards, DeRosa said they'll look to see if their equipment is in good working order and available in sufficient supply. For instance, "Some facilities still require lifeguards to transfer a rescue tube during rotations from the outgoing lifeguard to the incoming guard. This is an area of risk. A far better practice is to simply purchase one more rescue tube at a cost of approximately $60, thereby removing the need to transfer the rescue tube from one lifeguard to the next."
Whether it be a community pool, waterpark or resort amenity, each facility has its own unique needs, according to DeRosa, which is why a risk assessment and third-party audit is helpful. "Each facility should develop its own facility-specific emergency action plan, based in part upon type of facility, available staffing and available equipment. For example, at a community pool, lifeguards may be expected to provide first aid to injured guests. At a large waterpark, there could be a First Aid team comprised of first responders or EMTs that will assume care of an injured guest until EMS arrives and takes over."
Beaches present their own unique set of risks, and DeRosa said that each beach should also have a safety plan in place that addresses those risks particular to that beach. "Equipment needs may differ based upon a variety of factors including the type of beach (inland vs. ocean), conditions of the water (surf vs. non-surf), and peak attendance numbers (crowded vs. uncrowded). A beach with heavy surf and rip currents may have jet skis with sleds or perhaps even lines and reels, where an inland beach may use rescue boards or rescue kayaks."
Ellis & Associates (E&A) is an international aquatic safety and risk management consulting firm dedicated to the prevention and elimination of drowning. Richard Carroll is senior vice president and chief operating officer at E&A, and he said their facility audits are designed to identify potential risk exposures before they become catastrophic. "Basically, anywhere lifeguards are employed for the protection of guests, aquatic safety operational audits are an invaluable risk management tool."
In addition to facility inspections, E&A also offers Due Diligence Attraction Testing, AS™ Operational Compliance Audits and Emergency Care Training. "E&A instructors are authorized to train non-lifeguards in stand-alone CPR/AED, First Aid, bloodborne pathogens and emergency oxygen certification courses. Having additional staff trained in these skills increases the overall safety of any attraction or facility," said Carroll.
Safety initiatives should be strongly considered in a facility's planning stages, and E&A offers a design/construction plan review, which provides valuable insights on general safety, lifeguard positions, lifeguard sightlines, furniture/fixtures and equipment, operating equipment and supplies, section layout and operational safety considerations, according to Carroll. "Site Plan Reviews also identify design aspects that may reduce the number of lifeguard positions, which over a 10-year period could represent hundreds of thousands of saved labor dollars."
Of course, as Carroll points out, a major key to achieving a drowning-free environment is to set your lifeguards up for success. "This entails proper zones of protection, accountability-based training and culture, test-ready skills (through consistent in-service training) and proactive supervision. After all, if our lifeguards aren't successful, then the facility cannot be successful."
Both E&A and DeRosa's company will contract with a facility to train and certify not only lifeguards but lifeguard instructors, in case the facility wants to have an instructor trainer on staff. "Programs that bring in an outside trainer to conduct a pre-service or in-service training program for staff often find a boost in morale and a change in their standard approach to providing care," said DeRosa, explaining that it's beneficial to be challenged with a new perspective or approach. "This highlights the value of bringing in an unbiased third party to take a fresh look at lifeguard operations, including training and emergency response."
DeRosa described how an experienced third party can watch lifeguards practice the facility-specific Emergency Action Plan (EAP) and can offer suggestions for improvement that lifeguards and supervisors can then consider. The EAP should spell out the responsibilities of each team member during an emergency. "Recording lifeguard EAP performance and analyzing playback can be very effective in showing team members how they actually performed as opposed to relying upon individual recollection and self-assessment."
Complacency is to be avoided. Therefore, continuing education is crucial, and DeRosa said the standard of care for lifeguard in-service training is a minimum of four hours per month of facility-specific training. "Many facilities will increase or even double this requirement to help ensure that staff are properly trained to respond to all types of emergencies at a given facility. High-fidelity, scenario-based training is critical to preparing all team members to respond during an emergency."
Swanson Pool in St. Charles, Ill., consists of a 50-meter lap pool with diving boards, lap lanes, drop slides, waterslides and a rope walk, as well as a separate activity pool. Lifeguard staff must complete and pass a 20-hour E&A training program, which includes lifeguard rescue skills, CPR/AED/First Aid training, oxygen administration training and emergency procedures. "We have staff members who are trained lifeguard instructors. The lifeguard course is a combination of online learning, classroom activities and in-water practice," said Rosie Edwards, aquatics supervisor with the St. Charles Park District, explaining that classes are conducted in the spring before the pools open, so a local high school and rec center pool are utilized.
Throughout the year, auditors from E&A conduct three unannounced visits at Swanson Pool to audit staff performance. "The audit evaluates the lifeguard staff, the supervisory staff and administrative requirements," said Edwards. "This ensures our staff are operating from top to bottom as they should be."
Lifeguard staff are also required to attend at least one in-service per week during the season, according to Edwards. "Staff participate in internal and external Vigilance Awareness Training (VAT). We're making sure that staff are remaining vigilant while on their stands. Management staff internally observe staff on the same criteria as our outside audits from Ellis."
VAT seeks to educate, train and prepare lifeguards for a submersion event using a mannequin to simulate a submerged victim. Often times this training is a surprise, conducted during regular pool hours. "We always want our staff to be at a test-ready level," explained Edwards. "This means that we need our training to be the most realistic, which is why we perform mock rescues while the pool is open."
There are a lot of considerations when determining lifeguard placement at aquatic facilities. Maria Bella is an aquatics safety consultant at a Pennsylvania-based company dealing in lifeguard training kits and products, and she said when determining proper positions for lifeguards, it's important to perform reliable testing at various times of day, under different loading (swim lessons, open swim etc.) and lighting conditions. "Whether lifeguards are on roaming patrols or stationed in tall lifeguard stands, management must make sure that lifeguards can clearly see arms and legs of patrons so that they can determine if movement is due to play or struggle.
"Conditions such as glare, turbulence and line-of-sight obstructions including patrons, play features and lane ropes can make it impossible for lifeguards to see their entire assigned surveillance zone. Positioning lifeguards where they can see over obstructions and where their view of the pool bottom isn't blocked by glare on the water surface is critical for lifeguard success and patron safety," said Bella. Research conducted by her firm demonstrated that lifeguards consistently fail to identify underwater objects throughout more than 15% of their assigned surveillance areas.
Bella pointed out that the lifelike nature of mannequins is disturbing to some patrons, causing them to adjust their swimming activities, invalidating testing. Therefore, some facility operators perform tests after-hours, with lifeguards attempting to replicate turbulence and obstructions, while other facilities forego simulations and submerge mannequins in quiescent pools. "These approaches skew testing results and often cause lifeguards to be assigned zones that are too large, or to be positioned in stands that are too low to allow adequate visibility when scanning."
Bella's company developed a device and testing procedure that's an alternative to traditional mannequins, which they believe enhances the optimization of surveillance zones, scanning techniques and lifeguard placement. "When added to regularly-practiced rescue scenarios, (our) devices make it simple for in-house and/or outside firms to provide thorough lifeguard training."
One trend making the NDPA happy is aquatic facilities installing AEDs (automated external defibrillators), said Sutton. "Most of these facilities have made this decision on their own accord, but there are some municipal codes and state laws requiring having an AED at an aquatic facility. This is a minority, but we hope to see it become the majority."
She's also excited about other emerging drowning prevention technologies. "We're often asked if we'll ever see 'zero' for drowning numbers. Our response is 'Not if we rely on humanity alone, or technology alone. It must be a combination of the two to be successful.'"
"Some products and services incorporate the use of cameras both above and below the surface of the water, whereas others utilize wearable devices that operate on radio frequencies," noted DeRosa. "Like any profession, lifeguarding today means incorporating technologies into daily operations wherever possible. Particularly with new swimming pool construction, I anticipate more facilities will explore drowning detection technologies in an effort to enhance detection and rapid lifeguard response. Similarly, chemical controllers with internet connectivity and safety interlocks, which weren't standard in pool construction years ago, are quickly becoming standard."
DeRosa offers a Pool Operator Training Certification program, and said that in order to operate a clean and healthy aquatic facility, venue operators should be well-trained in sanitation, filtration and chemical adjustments. But he points out that not every state requires operators to be certified. "The standard of care in the industry is that the person responsible for maintaining water quality be certified to do so rather than just 'knowledgeable' in pool operations." He suggests checking the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) requirements for pool operators, and said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains a list of pool operator programs.
Learn-to-swim programs are another integral piece of the safety puzzle, and can reduce the risk of drowning by 88% for 1- to 4-year-olds who take formal lessons, according to the CDC. Drowning is the No. 1 cause of accidental death for that same age group. Most facilities offer learn-to-swim programs, and many offer grants for those who can't afford them, or work with local grassroots groups.
Back in Illinois, Edwards said that in addition to their own financial aid program, they also work with multiple foundations to offer financial assistance for swim lessons. "We've seen an increase in overall swim lesson registration and free swim lessons offered because of these amazing partnerships."
However, the NDPA points out that children shouldn't be considered "drown-proof" because they've had swim lessons. "We see many of our swim school and swim provider members incorporate water safety messaging and education into their weekly lessons," said Sutton. "We applaud their effort in this as we know that swim lessons alone—although a key component to being safer in and near water—are not sufficient."
Edwards said they also offer adult swim lessons, something that pleases Sutton. "We're starting to see more private swim schools and municipal programs offer adult swim lessons, which is wonderful and certainly addressing a need. We know from research done by the USA Swimming Foundation that a child of a non-swimming parent only has a 13% chance of learning to swim. That is a staggering and dangerous statistic."
More facilities—including Swanson Pool—are offering U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets for patrons to use. "Whereas once reliance on lifejackets was thought to discourage children from enrolling in swimming lessons, we now understand that much like seatbelts in a car, when properly sized and fitted, lifejackets save lives," said DeRosa. He added that research suggests enrollment in lessons seems to have increased at facilities requiring non-swimmers to wear lifejackets. "Learning to swim is seen as an incentive to then be able to take off the lifejacket."
There are many people and organizations working on the front lines to improve aquatic safety, including facility operators, consulting and training agencies, learn-to-swim groups, first responders, researchers and manufacturers, corporate America, the boating community, the pool service industry and many local coalitions and grassroots groups. Sutton said the NDPA serves as a connector for these groups to find and share data, trends and other information. "Our mission is 'United, we can prevent the tragedy of drowning.' We know that 'Drowning is preventable.'" RM