Feature Article - January 2014
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Managing Risk

Protect Your Patrons, Protect Your Facility

By Deborah L. Vence


Waterparks have continued to grow in popularity since they were first introduced in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the United States having the largest waterpark market. Features are more sophisticated, too, with special play areas equipped with waterslides, splashpads, spraygrounds and lazy rivers, and even some with artificial surfing or a body-surfing environment, such as a wave pool.

"Waterparks are leading the way in bringing a new generation to the joys of fun water activity. Waterparks are large facilities that involve a substantial investment. As a result, they tend to be more focused on risk management everywhere from design through operations," said Tom Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). "The facilities I visited are well-engineered and employ very competent and educated staff." (The NSPF offers an online course in its aquatic management series, dubbed "Aquatic Risk Management." The online course is geared toward aquatic facility managers, risk management and operators to help them learn how to protect customers and staff and reduce risk and liability.)

Standard risk management practices at waterparks are significantly variable in practice and might vary particularly between private-sector parks and public-sector parks, noted John L. Hunsucker, Ph.D., PE, president and CEO of the National Aquatic Safety Company (NASCO).

Reasons for the variance, he said, are related to the difference in the mission of the two different types of facilities, adding that public-sector parks are more concerned with reputation and service, and profit is not a significant motive for many of them.

"As an example, many states have a cap on what a public-sector park can be sued for, while no such cap exists in the private sector. The private-sector park is first and foremost a business and, as such, is concerned with profit, or else they can't stay in business," he said.

Hunsucker said he believes the following components are essential in managing risk at waterparks: a certification course in lifeguarding; a concentration on the deck management of lifeguards at the facility; and an inspection by an outside third party which comments not just on the skills of the lifeguards, but rather on how the guards are managed.

"The better agencies have requirements that they impose on their facilities. Some of these include standard practices that must be followed, attendance at the facilities national aquatic school, a prescribed number of inspections by the certifying agency during the season of operation," he said, adding that waterpark facilities should keep abreast of changes, research and modifications in standard practices. This usually means involvement with national trade associations, such as the World Waterpark Association.

Also, "Lifeguarding is a dynamic environment," he added. "As we get smarter and develop better procedures, we change protocols almost annually. As an example, while most parks will not experience a drowning, a significant number will have an orthopedic injury in the park each season if they have slides.

"This means that the certifying agency has to be robust enough to change protocols almost annually to incorporate new and better protocols. While these changes may not be necessarily large changes, the compendium of the changes over several years can be quite large. This necessitates not allowing your facility to exist in an isolated environment," he explained.

Shawn DeRosa, director of aquatics, Penn State University, and owner of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting, agreed.

"Properly trained and certified lifeguards are a major part of any waterpark's risk management plan," he said. And, staff often are screened for swimming ability and then trained in lifeguarding, CPR/AED and first aid procedures.

"Attraction operators must also be trained in the specific dispatch procedures for each attraction. Beyond initial certification, lifeguards participate in regular in-service training programs to keep rescue skills fresh and to ensure that lifeguards can effectively provide care as a team," he said.

"Many waterparks also participate in an external audit process in which a consultant makes an unannounced review or audit of lifeguard performance," he added. "These audits provide critical information to park managers regarding the performance of staff, including substantiating positive performance and identifying areas where additional training may be needed."

DeRosa added that employees who work at waterparks must know their role in the facility's emergency action plan.

"Depending on the size of the park and the nature and location of the emergency," he said, "different employees may play a role in providing care.

"Many of the standards and best practices seen in the waterpark industry directly carry over to other recreational venues, including public park and recreation providers," DeRosa said. "Lifeguards at all venues should be properly trained and certified and should undergo regular in-service training. Other recreation providers would be well-advised to implement an auditing program of staff, either through the use of a consultant or through peer audits wherein one aquatic director audits a neighboring facility in exchange for a similar audit of his or her own facility."