Feature Article - July 2009
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Water Hazard

Managing Aquatic Risk

By Daniel Margolis


Basic Training

Jim Wheeler is neighborhood service area manager with the city and county of San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. He also runs his own training and consulting company called Total Aquatic Management, and has over 35 years of experience in aquatics. Before joining the field professionally, he worked as a lifeguard and taught swimming and water safety while in college.

According to Wheeler, the fundamentals of safety in an aquatic facility depend on two things: good staffing provided with applicable, relevant, hands-on training; and facility inspection, evaluation and reevaluation.

NSPF's Alex Antoniou, who has 30 years of experience in aquatics and has directed aquatic programming and supervision for Rutgers University, echoed these fundamentals.

"On a daily basis, before they allow anyone in to the aquatic facility, a manager should make sure they have conducted a thorough inspection of the facility to make sure that there isn't going to be anything that's hazardous to one's health, and that can be structural inspections as well as water quality testing," Antoniou said, adding that it's important that aquatic facility managers get out in front of any potential risk. "Not spending the money on preventative maintenance, seasonal maintenance and waiting for something to break down before you replace it could create hazardous situations."

Just as important to risk prevention is training, something that the public, at times, can take for granted. "Whenever people are getting in water, the perception is that there are trained and certified people operating that facility," Lachocki said. The bad news, he added, is that in 30 of 50 states there are no requirements for pool, spa or waterpark operators to get trained and certified. The good news? "Fortunately, recreation facilities, for the most part, train and certify their operators."

Training, however, only goes so far. Wheeler feels that in addressing aquatic risk, one thing that's frequently overlooked is giving lifeguards the benefit of institutional knowledge gleaned from experience on the job.

"I'm not sure we're always teaching our guards what to look for," Wheeler said. "We're asking them to look for something they may have never seen. People don't sit around on the bottom of the pool; therefore we're not sure what people on the bottom of the pool look like."

To illustrate his point, Wheeler explained that a single individual at the bottom of a pool may be identifiable only by his or her swimsuit. Throw a dozen or more swimmers between a lifeguard and someone on the bottom of a pool, and factor in distractions such as glare, wind or surface disturbance, and identifying a swimmer in distress becomes that much more difficult. To train for these types of situations, Wheeler recommends lay-about drills, in which guards' abilities to discern images placed at the bottom of a pool are tested with and without added distractions.