Feature Article - April 2006
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Safe Swimming

Managing risk at aquatic facilities

By Kyle Ryan

Contributing factors

One question that has haunted facility operators for a long time is why can't lifeguards see bodies at the bottom of a clear pool? Theoretically they should be able to see them, right?

Maybe not. Griffiths lowered mannequins into five different pools at Penn State and videotaped them from many different angles to find out. Before the pools opened, it was easy to spot the dummies at the bottom. What he discovered after the pool opened floored him.

"The little waves generated by swimmers in the pool—and I'm not talking about visual obstructions of swimmers on the surface blocking the view on the bottom," he says, "just surface rippling, surface agitation destroys the view of the victim on the bottom."

Even small ripples of water caused by breezes in outdoor pools were enough to completely erase the image of mannequin. Griffiths calls this "visual body blindness."

"The view of the victim on the bottom of the pool, under perfect conditions, crystal-clear water, very few people in the water, is distorted and even disappears with surface agitation," he says. "Just imagine how difficult it is for lifeguards to see victims on the bottom when the pool is crowded."

When that's the case, lifeguards are set up to fail in normal conditions, and all the training in the world won't help. The problem generally isn't discussed, even though it has a pretty simple solution: getting lifeguards in the water to check the bottom.

"Traditional lifeguard-training programs, the older ones in the country, have emphasized surface scanning," Griffiths says. "Once a person's on the bottom, they only have seconds to live, and the survival rate once they slip under the surface is significantly lower. I'm trying to encourage people to prioritize the bottom and sweep the bottom first."

Sometimes lifeguards don't understand what their eyes see. It's called perceptual body blindness, and it's a controversial subject. It basically states that lifeguards don't process the information their eyes see—like a body underwater—because they don't expect to see one there.

"Visually it is apparent to their eyes, but it's not included on the brain, and this happens all the time in all walks of life," Griffiths says. "Many water-safety traditionals don't want to believe it, but psychology studies that phenomenon all the time."

Osinski likens perceptual body blindness to security personnel at airports: They don't see the gun in someone's bag because it shouldn't be there. But she's not impressed by the idea.

"It's a reason—it's not an excuse," she says. "If your job is to be looking for people in trouble in a pool, you should see them…They're looking right at it, and they're trying to convince themselves that what they're seeing is a towel, not a person. That's why we try to train people, if you see anything out of the ordinary, you go."

Griffiths has a catchy way to say it: When in doubt, fish it out.