Feature Article - July 2011
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Making Waves

New Strides in Aquatic Safety

By Jessica Royer Ocken

"This is foundational for us," he added. "It's the cost of being in the business we're in. We're a large swimming pool owner. There's lots of risk there, so we want to do all we can to help our staff do their job," he explained, noting that the Y would never use the system as a replacement for human lifeguards or as a means to trim the guarding staff.

He also noted that the alternative to such technology can be rather costly as well. "How cheap is a death?" he asked frankly. "You won't find another Y in the country as bottom-line-oriented as we are, but we also have to take care of the top line: the people. You only have your reputation once. If you can't operate after a drowning or event…you're not serving the community at all. You have to look at the big picture."

When asked about measurable benefits of having this technological assistance in place, Munster said that the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta has an excellent lifeguarding staff, so they don't have a lot of incidents. "We've had events where we've had rescues, and they probably would have made them just fine without [the system], but this is for one of those once-in-a-lifetime things that may happen," he said. For example, he asked, what if someone had a heart attack in the pool?

In terms of impact on lifeguards, YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta Group Vice President Kristin McEwen said that the only additional information guards need to learn are the basics of how the system works. Turning it on in the morning and off at the end of the day then become part of the standard pool operating procedures.

"Lifeguards are never supposed to take their eyes off pool, so when people are coming in and asking the guard questions, trying to find their lessons, those are distraction points," she explained. "[With this system in place] we have the ability to know that if a lifeguard is distracted for a second, something would alert them if something happened. … [When you] come in as lifeguard, at some point it's your first day and you're a wreck because you know everyone there is your responsibility," she continued. But lifeguards at these pools know they have a built-in backup to help them succeed. "As an organization we always look for ways to support our staff so they can be as effective in their role as possible," McEwen said.

She includes details about the system and video demonstrations of how it can work in monthly and yearly staff training sessions, and when an incident of any kind occurs, she's got the system's video footage to help make it a teachable moment. "It records everything going on in the pool and even on the pool deck," she said. "If a 3-year-old slips into the pool because the parent goes back into the locker room, we have footage of that. We can use it as training for our staff."

Munster added that these visual records can be useful for other reasons as well. "When an event happens, we have a record of it, which is very important. The first place people want to go is blaming the organization and blaming the staff. There are lots of wins [with the system]," he said. "It reinforces for lifeguards how important their job is, and it's a teaching aid we can use when we see things we want to improve upon."

And, although it's a challenge to hire enough lifeguards during the warm and sunny summers in Atlanta, McEwen said she's always pleased to see so many familiar faces at the start of the season. She believes the technology backup at the YMCA's pools is part of what keeps her guards coming back and cuts down on the number she must train from scratch each year.