Feature Article - April 2007
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Risky Business

Critical Safety Issues for Aquatic Facilities

By Joseph Ryan

Getting the most out of lifeguards

Simply hiring lifeguards to watch over an aquatic facility is not the best defense against drowning and other accidents. Having a properly managed, supervised and trained team of lifeguards is the single best defense.

To reach that goal, which many aquatic experts insist is a necessity, requires a never-ending cycle of quality management and, many argue, expert supervisors. This process begins by weeding through a stack of applications and picking the best candidate, and it doesn't stop, even once you ensure they are up-to-date on the latest in lifeguard techniques and practices.

"To manage people effectively, you have to be very familiar yourself with what you are asking them to do," said Mike Fijas, a former aquatic risk management specialist and current general manager of the soon-to-open Raging Waves waterpark in Yorkville, Ill.

Fijas is just one in a growing chorus of aquatic safety analysts calling for supervisors of lifeguards and even pool managers to be either trained as lifeguards themselves or become just as familiar with the practices through seminars and courses.

If the supervisor doesn't intimately know lifeguard standards, they argue, that person will not be able to adequately enforce them or even be aware when they broken.

"You have to have a well-informed and well-trained manager to ensure their lifeguards follow their training," said Connie Harvey, an American Red Cross health and safety expert. "We know that typically when there is a tragedy, it is more often the result of the lifeguard not following the training they had. The gap seems to be in management—that the lifeguard was not held to the standards they were trained to."

The Red Cross and other lifeguard-training organizations often provide special courses and seminars for facility managers who don't want to or have the time to get certified themselves.

Moreover, experts say it is important to remember that possessing a lifeguard certificate doesn't mean that the individual will know how best to rescue swimmers and monitor situations in a specific facility.

"It is up to the facility management to understand what kind of training is required for their own facility," Harvey said. "What does the facility contain? Is it a traditional rectangular swimming pool, or are there winding rivers or speed slides? What is the maximum depth?"

"All these things impact the training needed," she added. "And figuring out exactly what your needs are will drive you to the training."

Fijas suggests that supervisors develop their own tests and measurements for their particular facilities regardless of the certification a lifeguard possesses.

"A lot of facilities will just hire someone who is certified and just accept that certification at face value," he said. "But you don't know who gave them that certification. It could have been their cousin. So I would put them through your own test, just so you know."

Once a manager or supervisor is well versed in lifeguard policies and techniques, other common errors will often cease.

These usual mistakes include asking lifeguards to perform other duties, like cleaning up, when they are supposed to be watching the pool; failing to monitor the lifeguard's behavior and attitude toward guests; failing to rotate guard positions every 30 minutes; failing to provide in-service training at least once a month; and failing to have strict standards about slacking off on the job.

Properly supplying your lifeguards with the needed tools is equally important, experts argue. A full complement of required rescue materials, bandages and medicines for scrapes and illnesses need to be on hand and easily accessible.

Pool managers also should strongly consider purchasing heart defibrillator equipment and providing the necessary training, if that is not already required by local laws.

"It is now the standard of care," Harvey explained. Given the physical stress to patrons and the amount of people, "it makes a great deal of sense that defibrillators" be placed in all public aquatic facilities, she added.