Supplement Feature - February 2014
Find a printable version here

Buoyed by Innovation

The Latest Trends in Aquatic Staffing

By Chris Gelbach

Preventive Lifeguarding

As aquatic operations work to train their staff more effectively, they are focusing increasingly on preventive measures. One practical example is the Note & Float Campaign the State College, Penn.-based Aquatic Safety Research Group has promoted nationwide.

The program advocates that all non-swimmers under age 12 wear a clearly identifiable wrist band and a life jacket. "We're very pleased that it's gaining momentum," said Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., Aquatic Safety Research Group founder. "We can train and supervise and mentor and monitor lifeguards until we're blue in the face, but we can't train lifeguards to see what they can't see, what they don't want to see, and what they don't expect to see."

A life jacket that fits can reliably prevent drowning in a pool environment, and the wristband creates valuable situational awareness among everyone at the pool. "When a child with a band noted as a non-swimmer tries to sneak off a diving board into deep water, everyone sees this kid, not just the lifeguard," Griffiths said. This is particularly important given the speed with which drownings occur. "Usually it's not the lifeguard responding to the victim—about 80 percent of the time it's someone else in the pool who does," Griffiths said.

For the facilities that institute such a program, an unintended and welcome consequence is often a rise in swimming-lesson enrollments, since parents are eager to help get their children out of the life jackets.

Readily visible policies can also help forestall other drowning risks, such as breath-holding activities that can lead to shallow-water blackouts. "Facility managers should have rules and regulations in place that clearly state that they won't allow breath-holding at their facilities," Hefter said. "Your best bet if you're going to enforce something is to have it in writing to keep your patrons safe."

Patron education to help prevent drowning is also taking place in beach environments. In one example, the USLA has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's National Weather Service and National Sea Grant Program to raise awareness about rip currents.

According to the USLA, these powerful currents flowing away from shore are the cause of about 80 percent of the water rescues conducted at America's beaches each year. In these cases, it's generally not non-swimmers at risk. "Most of those swimmers are actually pretty good swimmers who are not intimidated by the surf environment and can swim in the surf, but just get caught in rip currents," Brewster said. The educational program explains both what rip currents are and how to get out of one if a lifeguard is not available.

A greater preventive focus can also be seen in training approaches, particularly in the area of in-service training. Hefter recommends at least four hours of in-service training a month for all lifeguards.

For seasonal positions, Brewster stressed the importance of refresher training at the beginning of the season for all lifeguards, no matter how experienced. The USLA recommends no less than 16 hours of this recurring training as a minimum.

When creating in-service training, Griffiths emphasized the importance of spending sufficient time on victim recognition and victim detection, and of using a variety of in-service games and drills focused on trying to spot the victim in the water.

He cited the example of the City of Phoenix, which had made a habit of putting sinkable mannequins on the bottom of the pool for these drills. To switch it up one summer, they mixed it up by putting people on the surface doing a dead man's float while breathing through a straw. "The failure rate was extremely high, and no one expected that to happen," he said. Now the city mixes up the drills so that the lifeguards never know what the victim will look like.

Griffiths also encourages agencies to train their lifeguards to interact with patrons without socializing and to change their posture and visual-scanning strategy every five minutes. Combined with a walkabout of the facility every 30 minutes by the manager, this approach can foster greater lifeguard engagement. "If someone in authority does that every 30 minutes, you really have the lifeguards on their toes and on the edge of their seat a little more," he said.