Guest Column - March 2002
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Your Lifeguards Watch But Do They See?

By Joshua Brener, Poseidon Technologies, Inc.

Ah, those lazy days of summer. They may seem a bit far off from now, but pretty soon many of you will be opening up outdoor pools, changing your aquatic schedules to accommodate summer hours and probably fretting about where to find lifeguards to adequately protect your pools.

Last year, lifeguard shortages forced the closure of a number of facilities across the United States. But this year, new studies on lifeguard vigilance show that even if you are lucky enough to find people to fill all of your guard hours, they will never be able to see everything that is happening in the pool, all of the time. Why? Because they're teenagers?

No. Because they're human.

There are still 400 deaths, and four times that many near deaths with potentially serious consequences, in public, lifeguarded swimming pools in the United States every year. It is simply an incredible challenge for anyone to see everything that is happening in a pool, especially below the surface, and especially when it's hot, and there are lots of swimmers.

But every second counts in a drowning incident. The longer a victim is submerged, the greater the chance of permanent brain damage or death. If a lifeguard can spot a swimmer in distress within the first 10 seconds of a drowning incident, and reach him to initiate aid within an additional 20 seconds, it is unlikely a drowning accident will occur.

But in many cases, this just doesn't happen.

That's because there are significant environmental and job-related factors that affect lifeguards every day. These factors were clearly identified in two studies commissioned late last year.

The studies were designed to measure actual lifeguard performance in detecting drowning incidents and to identify the factors that influence lifeguard vigilance. One study, conducted by Jeff Ellis & Associates, was the first on-site study of its kind. It calculated how quickly lifeguards could spot a swimmer in trouble underwater. Approximately 500 tests were performed on-site during the months of June, July and August 2001 at more than 90 U.S. pools that had no prior knowledge of the study, and that differed in size and type. In each case, a manikin was placed underwater in the pool; a tester started the clock when it was fully submerged.

The study showed that on average, it took one minute and 14 seconds for lifeguards to spot the manikin. Lifeguards noted the presence of the manikin on only 46 occasions, or in 9 percent of the tests within 10 seconds, and in 30 seconds or less in 43 percent of the tests. In 41 percent of the tests, it took more than one minute; it took more than three minutes in 14 percent of the tests. These dramatic results show that drowning, or near-drowning accidents with potentially serious, negative, life-long consequences, would have occurred in the majority of the test cases.

The reason lifeguards cannot always see what happens in the pool is often the result of environmental factors working against them, including noise and heat, as well as long hours on the job and the monotonous nature of their task. And this was the focus of the second study. Titled "Bibliographic Study on Lifeguard Vigilance," the report was written by vigilance experts at the Applied Anthropology Institute in Paris, France. The institute is renowned worldwide for its work with major airline and car manufacturers, including Airbus.

The institute's review supplements existing vigilance studies on lifeguards at sea. It details results of tests on highway drivers, airline pilots and industrial operators and uses them to draw implications and recommendations for pool lifeguard vigilance. These include:

n Vigilance capacity cannot be maintained at an optimum level for more than 30 minutes. The detection of critical signals (signs of a swimmer in trouble) in this type of task is never 100 percent.

n Laboratory studies show that the vigilance level will be higher as the number of relevant signals increases and the amount of nonrelevant signals (signals other than a swimmer in trouble) decreases. However, drowning incidents with their associated signals are rare, and they occur only randomly. The signal-noise ratio is thus very unfavorable to maintaining vigilance.

n Noise, one of the major environmental factors at a pool, generally has an unfavorable effect on lifeguard vigilance. Moreover, noise hinders the ability to share one's attention and tends to focus one's attention on the signals present in the central vision, to the detriment of those signals present in the peripheral vision.

n The performance of lifeguards can be affected by monotony, stress and fatigue. The particular environment in which the job is performed heightens the fragile nature of the performance.

n Heat is one of the factors that have a major effect on vigilance. Given the seasonal aspect of lifeguarding activities, lifeguards are often exposed to heat and to conditions that are not conducive to their performance. When the temperature is higher than 86°F/30°C, vigilance is significantly reduced, by 45 percent.

The institute concluded "the maintaining of lifeguard vigilance at a high and constant level throughout the surveillance period is particularly difficult due to the nature of the task: the low number of critical signals and high number of non-critical signals, the monotony, the unfavorable physical conditions (noise, temperature, etc.), and the organization of the activity over time, which may not be ideal."

So, what can you do to make sure your pool is as safe as possible?

Conduct rigorous training procedures for your lifeguards, including training that simulates an accident from start to finish. Audit your guards periodically to track their performance. And consider new, alternative methods to increasing safety levels, such as automatic drowning-detection systems that complement lifeguards and enable them to see what's happening below the surface of the water.

Now, more than ever, vigilance must be incorporated into all aspects of our daily lives. It's up to all of us to make sure it's incorporated within our recreational activities as well.

Joshua Brener is vice president of the North American Aquatic Safety Division at Poseidon Technologies, Inc. He can be reached at