Feature Article - July 2009
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Water Hazard

Managing Aquatic Risk

By Daniel Margolis

The level of risk that a lifeguard is presented with on a daily basis underscores the need for aquatic facility managers to make sure they're hiring the right people. "It's always tough to know whether the staff you're trying to hire are just looking for a job for a few extra bucks or whether they are dedicated employees," Antoniou said. "A lot of times facilities will play the game of Russian roulette—99 percent of the time nothing will happen, and when something does happen it can be devastating for the people involved as well as for the facility."

According to Antoniou, problems arise when facilities hire based on a lifeguard's certification training alone. "That's really a bad thing to do because you don't know where they got that certification from," he explained. "Even if it's a valid certification, you don't know what kind of standards the instructor adhered to in their training program."

Wheeler agrees, stating that a 27-hour training course cannot possibly produce a fully qualified lifeguard. "Twenty-seven hours gets me somebody who passed the test," Wheeler said. "Another 90 days of summer in a chair and I might start trusting you. Two summers, if you're good, we'll give you some responsibility, but really we don't ever trust anybody until about their third year of duty, otherwise we have to watch. First- and second-year guards we watch continually."

For guards to earn Wheeler's trust, they must demonstrate a sense of maturity and duty, and understand they're beholden to the general public. "Look, people drop their kids off here expecting to come back at 5 o'clock and have their kid there," Wheeler said. "You make people understand that for two or three hours at a time you have to maintain your focus, and life will go on when you're out of the chair, but for now this is your duty."

That focus can be hard to maintain, and industry experts advocate proper rotation of lifeguard positions in any public facility for that reason. "If you have a guy sitting in a lifeguard chair for eight hours, he's bored to tears," said Randy Mendioroz, principal of Aquatic Design Group, an aquatic design firm based in Carlsbad, Calif. "You have to shift the positions around so that they don't get bored and distracted."

Indeed, how a facility shifts and arranges guards can accomplish what Wheeler calls "layered protection."

"We're never going to put two new guards together on a pool," he said. "We're always going to have a senior guard behind them, and that's really how we're going to prevent drowning."

Just as important to this effort, Antoniou said, is having an emergency system in place for any contingency, and making a staff thoroughly rehearse and prepare for these situations. "It's not just let's get in the water and see if you can save someone, but let's go through the steps and rehearse what your emergency response time would be if it's a diving board injury, a shallow-end injury, a deep-water injury or even just someone collapsing on the deck," he said. "That minimizes time delays."

Antoniou added that this level of preparedness helps keep a facility's staff as safe as its patrons. "We tend to neglect that we need to ensure the health and safety of our staff that work at that facility as well, be it lifeguards or any other support that might be present," he said. "The aquatic manager is ultimately responsible for the safety of everyone in that facility."