Feature Article - April 2002
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Pool, Waterpark and Beach Safety

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

By Mitch Martin


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."