Feature Article - August 2008
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Safety First

Proactive Approaches Prevent Problems

By Dana Carman

At the Pool

As with climbing, it isn't hard to spot the risks associated with swimming. Similar to having proper flooring for the climbers because ultimately a climber will fall, exceptionally trained and attentive lifeguards are essential, because ultimately one of them will have to make a real save. Aquatics staff members reiterated that fact again and again, each one noting that their lifeguards ran through regular drills, were routinely surprise audited and were supervised closely.

"Lifeguard management doesn't stop," said Patrick Finnegan, vice president of Chula Vista Resort in the Wisconsin Dells. "You cannot stop training. There's no end to lifeguard training. It's constant and consistent and always requires management."

Chula Vista features over 200,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor waterpark space. In other words, it's massive. Proper staffing is imperative—meaning having just the right amount of lifeguards. "Too many lifeguards on the pool creates more of a hazard than not enough," Finnegan said. "There's really a lot to be considered when determining what the proper staffing level is for the pool." He noted the square footage, obstructions, how many people are in the pool, depth of the water and the experience and ability of the waterpark operator as some of those considerations. "We have a vested interest in making sure it's safe far beyond what any regulation could stipulate," he said.

In creating the safest environment possible, however, waterparks and pools can often fall prey to their own success. "Our biggest safety issue as far as I'm concerned," Finnegan said, "is related to swimming skills. Parents who know their children can't swim have a sense of security because a facility is guarded and are willing to let their kids roam freely. In some truly frustrating cases, they don't even come in with them."

Chris Watson, the recreation manager for the City of Hurst Parks and Recreation in Hurst, Texas, understands this. "I think the public's perception is that lifeguards are the final barrier to safety," he said. But really, "they're a supplement to personal responsibility."

To that end, Chula Vista has put in motion some re-education tools to remind parents that no one is better at supervising their child than they are. One such tool is guest check-in literature that lists the waterpark's promises and guest responsibilities. For example, the park promises to provide trained lifeguards, but it is the guests' responsibility to watch their kids. Or, the park promises to provide quality life jackets, but it is the guests' responsibility to make sure their kids are wearing one if they can't swim. In-room notices also reiterate rules.

Beyond required reading, a new wrist-banding program is being rolled out. In order to use the water facilities, guests will have to secure a wristband from the waterpark staff. The staff will reiterate safety, discuss the appropriate age a child is permitted to be at the facility without a parent present, and present wristbands that are color-coded for age. The wristbands can be scanned to find out guest name, room number and a contact number so that if an underage child is found in the park alone, the wristband information will locate a parent.

"Am I trying to put all the responsibility on a parent?" Finnegan asked. "No. We still have a responsibility to do our part." But, he noted, "The industry has had tragedies that are related directly to unattended children and to non-swimmers in deep water without a life jacket. We have a vested interest that everyone who comes to the waterpark goes home."

Part of the re-education of the public therefore also includes creating programs for swim lessons and informing the public of just how important it is that kids learn to swim. Some parents may take offense at the notion that they're not "properly parenting" and would prefer to place the blame elsewhere when it comes to water safety, but Finnegan noted that while a parent may know his or her child's ability, the staff doesn't. For the most part, Finnegan said, parents see his approach as a good thing rather than a negative.

The Prince William County (PWC) Park Authority does its share of water safety education as well, illustrating that perhaps the best tool of all is a public with a shared interest in safety rather than an assumption of such. Like Chula Vista, PWC Park Authority provides highly trained lifeguards with thorough, routine inspections and drills to keep them constantly on alert. However, also like Chula Vista, PWC Park Authority recognizes that in addition to providing the best possible environment, the pool users need to understand and undertake precautions as well. Life vests are available in every size for toddlers up to adults, free of charge. Instead of doing just a water safety month, it's a water safety summer at the PWC pools with water safety events and programs rotating days at each facility.

Additionally, Aquatics Director Crystal Wilson, along with another staff member, has begun water safety classes for third- through fifth-graders. "They take safety extremely seriously," said Diane Cabot, public relations manager.

Which is why PWC Park Authority also has a database that tracks all injury occurrences of staff or customers, as well as theft and vandalism. The data is analyzed on a quarterly basis to see if any changes are needed in the current risk management plan. While the Park Authority has two full-time risk management staff, everyone in the department is accountable for safety. "We do a lot of general risk training," Cabot said.