Photo Courtesy of Counsilman-Hunsaker
Craig Merkey learned one of his foundations of aquatic safety a long time ago: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Merkey, associate director of recreation and aquatics at Penn State Harrisburg, helps run the Capitol Union Building Aquatics facility. At one point in his career he co-taught lifeguarding classes, and one exchange between his fellow teacher and a student stuck with him.
“I heard a lifeguard telling him about a save, and instead of the ‘Great job’ comment I was waiting for him to say, he asked what the lifeguard did wrong to have to enter the water,” Merkey said. “As a young lifeguard, I thought it was all about the saves. I learned that day in overhearing the follow-up that the things we prevent from happening are the most important things we do as a lifeguard. Anticipating what may happen next was something I focused on in my guarding after hearing that.”
The story highlights two key issues with aquatic facility safety today: the importance of lifeguarding and the importance of teaching lifeguarding. The industry has a labor problem, and though the pandemic exacerbated it, it didn’t start it. With the worst of the pandemic behind us, the labor shortage won’t end when the public health emergency does.
Aquatic safety also mandates oversight of accessories, water and air quality, and facility design, but those pale in comparison to the issue of not enough or poorly trained lifeguards.
Miklos Valdez, a studio director with Counsilman Hunsaker, surveyed clients in October, asking them what kept them up at night. More than 80% mentioned staffing concerns. Valdez cited as an example of the low staffing nightmare scenario a drowning death last summer in a St. Louis County, Mo., rec center. One lifeguard was on duty at a facility that required two to be open.
“I don’t think that this is going to go away,” Valdez said. “The industry needs to change how we recruit, hire and train our staff, and understand that in most cases we’re probably going to have a pretty transient staff. This means that we must spend more time developing potential lifeguards and instructors to get them ready to go through instructor training.
“It also may mean we need to spend more time developing facility-specific training protocols to ensure staff have received the required training prior to taking the stand.”
Juliene Hefter, executive director and CEO of the Association of Aquatic Professionals said she’s been seeing creative improvements in recruitment and retention within the industry, like lifeguarding courses being offered for free.
“Potential lifeguards are now able to take the classes necessary to become lifeguards without having to pay out of pocket for that training,” said Hefter. “We are also seeing some agencies hiring employees prior to the (training) course, as long as they have the necessary swimming skills, and providing them an hourly rate while they are taking the initial course to become a lifeguard. This will make a huge difference in the industry as a whole if more follow suit.”
Hefter said she’s also seen organizations providing higher pay ranges and signing bonuses. Some are also offering end-of-season bonuses based on the total number of hours that someone is able to work during a specific time period. For example, if an employee works 200 hours they receive an extra $1 per hour worked. For 250 hours, there’s an extra $1.50 per hour worked. For 300 hours, an extra $2 per hour worked, and so on.
“Rewarding employees for their dedication and commitment to your organization will definitely make a difference,” she said.
Valdez said one of the crucial adjustments he has seen too many facilities forget in the strained staffing environment is the updating of their protocols for lower staff numbers. He said management should review all standard operating procedures (SOPs) and emergency action plans (EAPs) to make sure they work with and are written to accommodate adjusted staff numbers.
He also suggests internal audits of lifeguard operations at the least and, if affordable, third-party evaluations.
“Internal evaluations are great, but third-party evaluations are even better,” he said. “Outside evaluators tend to catch things that your internal staff miss.”
Training programs should include the following, Valdez said:
- Pre-service testing to see if the lifeguard can perform the necessary duties for working at a specific facility.
- Pre-service training in EAPs and SOPs, and evaluating staff members to confirm they have learned what they need to.
- Regular or routine training for all safety team members.
- Annual or seasonal training refreshers for all staff members.
- Documentation of staff training, safety checks, maintenance, chemical tests and incidents/pool closures/fecal accident response.
“We are still seeing facilities that do not hold regular in-service, or do not hold the required number of hours according to their specific standards,” Valdez said. “Many times, even when facilities are holding regular in-service, they do not have comprehensive training plans in place to ensure they are training on all required topics and have plans for the season and year.”
Valdez said one of the most improved areas in aquatic facility safety is the use of online documentation and training.
Frank Perez, the general manager of NRH2O Family Water Park in North Richland Hills, Texas, agrees. He and his staff employ software for everything from maintenance to scheduling to training.
“Online inspection programs that allow you to set up inspection protocols for your attractions and facility as a whole have made it much easier to track information and disseminate it to everyone who needs it,” Perez said. “They also provide immediate access to mechanical manuals, as well as allow the facility to easily track repairs and quickly identify potential areas of concern.”
Perez said having the capability to move portions of training online has made a huge difference in staff preparedness for such things as lifeguard training and training on attractions. Online training works well with the current generation and allows them to see what is expected of them prior to attending the class or on-site trainings, he said.
“This in turn helps make staff members aware and ready for the in-person trainings and overall makes them more successful,” said Perez. “Information has always been key, and these programs help identify challenges, provide analytics that can be used to determine solutions, and get that information out to all staff quickly and efficiently.”
One of the main scheduling challenges is programming for members and the public in general, and a strong swim class curriculum helps a facility staff help itself. Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, and for kids of those ages, learning to swim from a qualified instructor drastically reduces the risk of drowning—by 88%, according to the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance.
PHTA’s Step Into Swim initiative is committed to creating more swimmers, said PHTA CEO and President Sabeena Hickman. She said Step Into Swim provides grants to learn-to-swim programs across the country to help give children and families in underserved communities access to quality swim instruction. In 2022 alone, Step Into Swim provided $750,000 to lesson providers across 43 states, reaching 23,500 children in need of swimming lessons. These lessons help reduce childhood drownings in the communities that receive grants. Step Into Swim also shares water safety tips on its website and social media accounts.
PHTA is involved with such safety groups as the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, the American Red Cross, Pool Safely, and Water Quality USA, among many others, said Hickman.
“We work to educate owners and swimmers and urge precautions such as ensuring undistracted adult supervision of minors at the pool at all times; secure barriers and fencing; covers and alarms are in place; ensuring all pools and spas have compliant drain covers; that adults are trained to perform lifesaving CPR; that children are taught how to swim—3 to 5 years is the best time for swimming lessons; that signage is posted to communicate rules such as no diving; and that pools are properly maintained,” Hickman said.
Human safety controls work with facility design and accessories for maximum care of staff and swimmers. National Drowning Prevention Alliance CEO Adam Katchmarchi, Ph.D., said the first step in approaching safety holistically for aquatic facilities is starting with the design of the facility and the pool itself.
If management is in the processes of a new build or renovating an existing facility, it can incorporate the latest safety advancements into the design and address existing risks. Building codes and standards often require facilities to comply with the latest design and engineering requirements, such as the International Swimming Pool and Spa Code published by the International Code Council and the American National Standard for Public Swimming Pools, said Katchmarchi.
“For existing pools not undergoing renovation, management should consider the design and layout of the existing facility when writing or revising the facility’s emergency response plan,” he said. “Each pool is unique, so management should consider all factors that could potentially impact their patron’s safety.”
Katchmarchi said important design considerations that impact safety planning include the positioning of lifeguards, safety personnel and equipment; management of high-traffic areas and popular facility features; rescue and response performance; and the design and implementation of rules and safety procedures. Facility management should also ensure that the pool is always in compliance with federal, state and local laws such as the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Joe Stefanyk, senior director at Ellis & Associates, said aquatic facility design should be approached with operational safety in mind. Including either the aquatic facility operator or an aquatic operations expert to consult in the planning phase can help avoid design concepts that are difficult or costly to adjust in the future.
According to Stefanyk, design decisions that contribute to safety and operations include:
- Lifeguard and attraction placement: lifeguard placement and line of sight to maximize Zone of Protection with efficient use of staff needed to operate while not compromising on safety. Eliminating physical occlusions created by shape and placement of theming or other physical elements should be avoided while including spaces for lifeguard stands, roving paths and access to all lifeguard areas.
- Support area placement: First Aid stations, lifeguard break areas, manager areas and safety equipment should all be placed for maximum efficiency. Emergency ingress and egress for internal and external (police, fire, EMS) emergency services should be considered.
- Communication: in-house phones, internal and external emergency services communication devices, message repeater systems, signage, radios, line of sight for use of flags or other signal indicators must align with lifeguard, attraction and support area placement.
“Throughout the years, aquatic safety tended to only take into consideration staffing, training and the emergency action plan,” said Hefter. “It is great to see that aquatic facility design is now being looked at to help ensure the safety of individuals who come to facilities. This in no way takes away from the requirement for constant, direct, uninterrupted supervision, but is just another layer of protection.”
Hefter said the facility can be designed to aid in safety, starting with the controlled entrance to the swimming area from the locker rooms so that swimmers cannot simply run out on deck and jump into the pool not knowing the depth they’re jumping into.
“Zero-depth entry for safe entry and gradual depth increases and depth markings on the walls are necessary to help swimmers be aware of the depths of the pool in certain areas or the increase in depths,” she said. “Safety lines are also a great item as a visual in letting everyone know where depth increases are occurring.”
Once the design and construction aspects of safety are in place, there are accessories that help ensure everyone will have a danger-free experience, said Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., founder of the Aquatic Safety Research Group.
Griffiths said in general that more shallow-water areas in facilities tend to be safer than fewer, and that they should be separated from deeper water with lines, lifelines, walls and bulkheads.
Adding shallow-water amenities can help as well to keep smaller children entertained while keeping them away from deeper water, he said.
“Removable water features like large inflatables—obstacle courses, slides—can make facility programming as well as areas safer,” said Griffiths. “Movable bottoms with the ability to make deep water pools shallow have really improved and should be investigated. Not only can a deep pool be made shallow, but movable bottoms can create a dry deck above the surface of the water for increased flexibility. And lifejackets for all non-swimmers continues to be our mantra.”
Griffiths said advances in technology don’t stop at recordkeeping and training. For instance, drowning prevention technologies are improving and becoming less expensive, he said, and should be investigated and analyzed.
Perez said there have been improvements and innovations with cameras and how they are not only used for safety in monitoring parks as a whole but are now becoming more commonplace as an additional way to monitor guests in the water.
“New camera solutions not only help monitor the guests in your pools, but are also analytic, using artificial intelligence and live surveillance for real time notifications of guests in distress,” said Perez. “Advances in sensor systems for amusement rides have also come a long way over the years. Today’s sensor systems offer many advantages to the operator, such as constant monitoring of not only the riders through your attractions, but also analytics of pump and motor efficiencies, rider throughput and queue time, downtime occurrences, and real-time alerts for any potential concerns.”
Considering Valdez’s October survey showing the overwhelming majority of operators fearing staff shortage challenges, a great amount of focus and energy will likely be directed toward solving that problem.
With a larger pool of candidates in mind, PHTA lobbied successfully for the Department of Homeland Security to release 65,000 visas for fiscal year 2023. Griffiths said the industry needs to hire more retirees and parents and consider adolescents for shallow-water guard duty.
Merkey said challenges come and go, but what should always serve managers well is caring and commitment.
“There is no time to sit back and put your feet up!” Merkey said. “I see it so many times with young managers, where they want to sit in the office with their feet up now that they aren’t in the lifeguard chair. This is a job where we need to remain focused and diligent every day.
“Watching the pool is easy; being focused on everything going on is hard. This is developed through in-service, walking around talking to the lifeguards and reminding them, and guiding them to see the things I see as I watch the pool. I also learn new things all the time, through continued education and my own in-service through the Association of Aquatic Professionals conferences. Building relationships with other aquatics professionals is so important to learn from each other too.” RM