Dealing With Lifeguard Shortages, and Other Concerns in Waterpark Safety
The American Lifeguard Association reported this past summer that a third of U.S. pools were affected by staff shortages, leading to pool closures, or limited hours of operation and late openings at the beginning of the season. The nation's low unemployment rate, the slowdown in training and expiring certifications due to COVID restrictions are the main culprits. While some municipalities and businesses resorted to signing bonuses, paying for certification and increasing wages to compete for the existing lifeguard pool, that doesn't solve the dearth of properly trained people.
Lifeguards are necessary to operate waterparks as well, and they are a crucial aspect of safety and risk management plans, said Joe Stefanyk, a senior director for Jeff Ellis & Associates, an aquatic risk management company.
To understand how lifeguards fit into a facility's effort to attract and keep customers through providing feelings of security, Stefanyk said it's important to clarify the differences between the terms "risk management" and "safety."
Stefanyk said that in layman's terms, risk management is "knowing what might cause you or the organization harm, taking steps to minimize the likelihood that those things might occur, and having a plan to control the impact should they occur."
On the other hand, safety, Stefanyk said, is a product of risk management, in that the process of identifying and evaluating risks, then taking steps to mitigate or minimize those risks leads to an environment where the potential for harm or negative impact to individuals or the organization is minimized or eliminated.
"As aquatic facility operators, we all seek to provide a safe environment for our team members and the patrons who visit our facilities," Stefanyk said. "We must continuously apply good risk management practices in order to achieve the safety results we seek. Risk management must be an ongoing process in order to achieve the desired level of safety our guests expect and deserve."
Asked about the evolution of those two terms, Stefanyk referenced one of the top concerns in aquatics and who is at the front lines for it. Stefanyk said drowning has always been at the top of the list when it comes to potential risks at an aquatic facility, and said risk managers at guarded facilities identified a few consistencies among causes:
- Lifeguards were inattentive or inconsistent in scanning their zones of protection.
- There were portions of attractions that did not have zone coverage.
- Lifeguards were unable to clearly see all levels—surface, middle and bottom of the water—of the zone due to occlusions such as glare, reflection, refraction or even the design of the pool, thematic elements or aquatic features in and around the pool.
- The size of the assigned zones of protection were simply too large for the lifeguard to be able to provide adequate swimmer protection.
Stefanyk said his company has helped respond to these issues with methods of training that emphasize scanning, ensuring lifeguards can see the entirety of their zone from their assigned position, and ensuring that they can respond to an incident in a timely manner. Ongoing training includes regular evaluation of lifeguards' recognition of distressed swimmers through drills.
"It is clear that the standard and expectations for swimmer protection have taken a significant change for the better and resulted in an increase in safety," Stefanyk said.
So lifeguards are likely a facility's most important employee, but if it's difficult to find enough, what is to be done?
Juan Richards is director of marine and waterpark operations for a Atlantis Resorts in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and while his region isn't experiencing the same labor shortage, 23 of his 25 years in the industry were spent in the U.S. He has advice for his American operational colleagues, and it isn't to simply offer more money.
"They have to gear their culture toward the job being fun in any way possible," said Richards. "It seems most individuals either don't need to work or can get paid to work in a venue outside of the aquatic industry while making more money with less effort. Workers need to wake up and say to themselves, 'I want to go to work today because I'm scared I'll miss out on something if I don't.'
"You can play the minimum wage game with an extra 50 cents or dollar increase per hour, but is it sustainable? Is this going to solve your labor shortage issues? More than likely you'll end up doing this every year and not see a huge increase in (hiring)."
Wess Long is president of StarGuard ELITE, which advises on aquatic safety. He said adding to the woes of the COVID training interruptions and the nation's low unemployment rate is a cultural change and the increase in facilities like waterparks.
"Twenty to 30 years ago, not only did we not have the labor shortage, money was a lot more of a motivating factor and lifeguards were paid more," he said. "The profile of a lifeguard was Baywatch, and that made it look cool. The aquatic industry as a whole has continued to blow up, and expand and that's created more need."
Long said the life-and-death aspects of lifeguard training and duties don't appeal to the generation now in the typical years of lifeguard employment—teens to early 20s. He doesn't think the lifeguard shortage will change for a few years but has ideas for easing it.
"We need more junior lifeguard programs, more swim lessons so we have a larger candidate pool, but also elevate the seriousness and acceptance that, 'Hey, lifeguarding is a job that has a lot of benefits,' and not 'this is a teenager twirling a whistle and getting a tan.' We put a lot on these young adults to be able to do what they have to do."
He said for now and maybe when the shortage eases, operators should rethink roles in their facility. Whereas the majority of all aquatic facility workers were multi-use lifeguards—adding cleaning and ticket booth duties, for instance—staffing can be better categorized to focus on hiring lifeguards to only engage in lifeguard duties.
Long suggested slide dispatchers can be trained in CPR and first aid and use of defibrillators but not fully trained as lifeguards. And within the lifeguard staff, there can be lifeguards for shallow water or certain attractions.
"Accommodations have to be made," he said. "If you're a facility hiring 200 positions, you're not going to find 200 that can meet the lifeguard requirements, but maybe you find 100, so you take the other 100 and find ways to operate creatively but still meet all the best practices and guidelines you need to, but not doing it in a way that compromises safety or changes operational standards otherwise."
Long said finding the right personality type when hiring is important—maturity, wherewithal to respond to emergencies, personal accountability, team player traits—but most crucial is what he tells clients: "You don't want to convince people to be a lifeguard. They have to want to do it."
While the goal of a lifeguard is to prevent drowning and injury, different aquatic venues present different challenges, said Long. No two waterparks are the same and all are different from flat-water swimming pools.
Managers should think about their facility through the eyes of their lifeguards, he said. "When you think about traditional flat-water pools, the pools themselves, the lifeguarding and the dynamics are very consistent," he said. "When you talk about waterparks you get so many varied designs."
Long said waterpark managers can enhance lifeguards' confidence and job performance through a combination of defined zones, and helping them understand the dynamics of those zones, whether they are lazy rivers, wave pools, activity pools or slide catch pools. They then should be trained to the specifics for the objectives of that zone.
"The big difference with waterparks versus traditional pools is you can't take a rigid approach to say every extrication is going to be trained like such," said Long. "There's so many unique elements—where an incident occurs, where the closest extrication point is—so it all comes down to them understanding the objectives and training them to that. Really good site-specific training in addition to their lifeguard certification together really set them up for success."
Richards said once you have hired your staff, regular training and policy updates are essential. And there are better ways to grab and hold attention for more effective absorption of information. "People learn more when they are having fun, and while this isn't a solution for everything, you should always try to inject something more into every in-service or staff update," said Richards. "Five-minute ice breakers to start the meeting instantly grab hold of your team's attention and force them to pay attention. In all of my years I've found that colleagues and employees appreciate whenever the instructor puts more energy into the lesson. You get what you give."
The following steps are Richards' favorites for managers to maximize meetings and training refreshment:
- Triple-check that your information is valid and relevant. "There is no point in discussing it if the material isn't correct," he said.
- If it's a skill or a new technique, make sure you have practiced it to a teacher-ready level before presenting it to your team.
- Constant reinforcement of the new content in the workplace with pop quizzes, emergency drills and audits of staff.
- Encourage your staff to do some research and be ready to present material to the group.
- Subscribe to your regional and industry newsletters and post articles or discuss them in your briefings.
Aside from human safety measures, waterparks can improve guest well-being with features. One manufacturer of waterpark attractions lists four other than lifeguards:
- Accessible First Aid areas that at minimum have beds for dehydrated or injured guests, bandages, sunscreen, water, ice and defibrillator.
- Instructions and rules for every attraction, including height requirements and weight restrictions.
- Life vests.
- Shade for eating areas and anywhere lines of people form.
- Plenty of available water to drink, free if possible.
Much of the concern for waterpark safety begins with the fact that there is no federal authority regulating safety standards. As one insurance company blog post puts it: "The responsibility lies with the state, and while some states have agencies that inspect, others rely on the parks' own insurance companies to conduct inspections. Sometimes those inspections do not involve evaluating the safety engineering of a ride or considering important factors like speed and geometric angles of slide paths."
The insurance company recommends several risk management measures besides consistent training:
- Staff monitoring: Supervisors should frequently check operations to ensure all personnel are following and performing their trained duties.
- Detailed record-keeping: In case of an accident, it's crucial to identify, interview and record the names and experiences of all involved and to get testimony from eyewitnesses.
- Park maintenance and inspection: Proactive maintenance, preventive maintenance and daily inspections are important for peak park performance and guest safety.
Stefanyk said there have been technological advances in helping facilities with risk management and safety. Remote training sessions introduced during the pandemic will likely continue post-COVID, and all or most human resource procedures can be remote as well. For lifeguards, video camera surveillance systems, artificial intelligence (AI) and enhanced communication devices can enhance their skills.
For instance, he said, some aquatic facilities are using cameras to capture live video, and some systems employ instantaneous analytics that have learned to identify patterns and behaviors specific to those a guest in distress would exhibit.
"AI, working in conjunction with a control room operator, provides a unique aptitude for providing alerts to on-deck lifeguards of a potential issue, even those that are out of the active sight of the lifeguard," said Stefanyk. "That being said, drowning prevention systems do not eliminate or replace the need for on-deck lifeguards, but rather they will provide an additional layer of safety, reducing the risk of drowning, providing a valuable tool for training and auditing, providing litigation support, identifying poor guest behavior, and ultimately reducing risk at all areas of the facility."
The future of safety in aquatic facilities is bright, Stefanyk said, because he has faith in the industry's professionals. "Improving the training we provide our staff, providing the appropriate supervisory support and resources they need, and looking toward the next great innovation, concept or strategy that reduces risk is all of our responsibility," he said. "It is the only way to mitigate the challenges our risk management teams work so hard to identify. It is the only way we can offer our guests the safety they deserve. I am confident that collectively we as an industry will fulfill those responsibilities." RM