Feature Article - April 2008
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Life Preservers

Meeting the Challenges of 21st Century Aquatic Risk

By Hayli Morrison

The Staffing Solution

As aquatic facility operating hours expand, there is a need for more staff to alleviate lifeguard fatigue. As operating seasons stretch beyond summer vacation, there also is a need for older workers who can work during the school year. Thus, facility managers are recruiting more stay-at-home moms, emergency service workers and retired baby boomers. Additionally, lifeguard training class schedules are becoming more flexible, and recruiters are starting to work with kids at younger ages to make lifeguarding seem more attractive early on. Many junior lifeguarding programs and mentoring programs start working with kids as young as 13.

"By the time they turn 15 or 16, they've gotten rid of their bad habits and figured out how to be a good lifeguard before they actually have to lifeguard," Griffiths said.

To further improve the supply of lifeguards, Griffiths recommended that training take a different approach. He cited a survey of 10,000 lifeguards over a five-year span that showed most lifeguards feel their most valuable training came on the job, not in a classroom before they were hired.

"Most of the information you need to give them isn't in the water safety textbooks," Griffiths said. "You need every water safety book from every agency that's out there in your library. Take the best from each, and then on top of that—particularly if you're hiring adolescents—you need to use adolescent psychology and look for pertinent information in resources like newspapers, TV, radio and magazines."

Griffiths' organization, the Aquatic Safety Research Group, recommends that trainers create real-life emergency scenarios using test mannequins in the water. The training scenarios should get progressively more creative, and certainly more creative than the scenarios discussed in training manuals, Griffiths said. Anxiety tests are not currently part of the lifeguard hiring process, but creative training scenarios can help determine if employees are able to remain clear-headed in the midst of emergencies.

"You might want to disconnect the emergency phone, or you might want to introduce a blood-like substance in the water, or you might want to drop two mannequins," Griffiths said.

Above all else, there needs to be ample lifeguard supervision, particularly when younger employees are involved, Griffiths said. Decision-making and judgment are the last two centers of the brain to develop, and most researchers agree that most brains don't even fully develop until age 25.

"We base our safety of our facilities with lifeguards, many of whom are not old enough to drive," Griffiths said. "We put them in a position of making professional, adult, mature decisions with an immature brain. If we're going to continue to make these teenage lifeguards our first line of defense against drownings and catastrophic events in the pool, we have to give them tremendous adult support and supervision."