Feature Article - April 2008
Find a printable version here

Life Preservers

Meeting the Challenges of 21st Century Aquatic Risk

By Hayli Morrison

Aquatics safety is reaching new heights. Some say the aquatics industry has historically appeared slow to embrace change. However, there is no doubt that the industry is now diving headlong into the 21st century with new technology, more expansive research and a completely different approach to lifeguard recruitment and training.

A series of events propelled the changing approach to aquatics safety. Pool seasons and operating hours are growing longer, leaving staff managers scrambling for adequate lifeguard coverage. There also has been a rash of recreational water illnesses (RWIs) in recent history. Despite years of "This is the way we've always done it," many facility managers are learning it's time to move away from that line of thinking and the operational status quo. But because the status quo has prevailed for so long, there are many challenges to overcome before the aquatics industry can undergo a sweeping change.

The Staffing Challenge

There were nine drowning deaths on average every day in 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, drowning is the second leading cause of accidental, injury-related death for children under age 15, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Granted, many of these incidents occur in private residential swimming pools. Nevertheless, the statistics are alarming and demand that aquatics professionals sit up and take notice.

One factor in this equation is lifeguard fatigue from long shifts in the blazing sun. As aquatics facilities extend their operating hours and seasons—some even yearlong—the staffing challenge becomes even more pronounced. There is a tendency to draw heavily from the international workforce, particularly on the beaches of coastal states. However, that is an option that has become severely limited by tighter restrictions on work visas.

"Some of (the staffing challenge) is seasonal, and some of it is that certain areas just don't have an adequate workforce to build from," said Dr. Peter Wernicki, an orthopedic surgeon who volunteers on the American Red Cross Advisory Council on First Aid, Aquatics, Safety and Preparedness. Another aspect of the staffing challenge is the reality of increased competition for qualified employees, as there are now more aquatics facilities than ever before.

Unfortunately, lifeguards are among the first people to come under fire in the event of a pool accident, but they are only human. In many cases, a significant amount of fault could be placed with the managers and funding sources of aquatics facilities. Lifeguarding teams may be overworked, understaffed and some would even say underpaid. The equipment may be inadequate or unsafe. The initial and ongoing staff training may not have been quite comprehensive enough. These are the exact problems the industry is swiftly moving to fix.