Supplement Feature - February 2014
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Buoyed by Innovation

The Latest Trends in Aquatic Staffing

By Chris Gelbach

Technology to Complement Dedication

As the results of in-service drills and video of actual drowning incidents confirms, even the best-trained, most engaged lifeguards can miss a drowning victim or hesitate when they see one. For this reason, and because the window for error is so short in drowning incidents, more facilities are giving lifeguards an assist through technology.

Whether it's computer-assisted video that notifies lifeguards of an unconscious swimmer or an alarm that is set off when someone jumps in the pool, these technologies will likely gain greater use as their price comes down over time.

As Griffiths said of one video system with a proven track record of saving more than 20 victims, "It's very, very expensive, but it works very well. It's most practical and affordable for new facilities going in, and if it's included in their capital budget when they're building a facility, it's not too bad."

Similarly, more new tools are now available to assist in measuring water quality, including mobile apps that give essential water-quality updates. These technologies can offer a valuable second line of defense—particularly when it's so easy for staff members to fill in a log book for water testing without actually doing the tests. But some believe they work best as a complement to tried-and-true approaches.

"Regardless of the high-tech app you have for your facility, three times a day someone should take a test kit and do it the old-fashioned way as a backup," Griffiths said.

Maintaining good water quality, through mechanized systems and manual testing, is crucial to water safety at your facility. "Helping prevent loss of life depends on the entire system," said Tom Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation. "Good water quality is important. Lifeguards can't save what they can't see."

When it comes to surf lifeguarding, however, the old-fashioned way is no match for mechanization. The continually increasing use of personal watercraft with rescue sleds is making a profound difference in helping lifeguards manage groups of people, go in and out of the surf line, and quickly rescue multiple victims more effectively.

"That mechanization comes with something of a cost, but it also comes with some pretty significant efficiencies in terms of the speed at which that lifeguard can get to the victim and get the victim back to the beach," Brewster said. It also requires additional training—a minimum of 80 to 100 hours, according to Brewster.

The USLA is also seeing the spreading use of enclosed fiberglass lifeguard towers to help protect staff from the elements and skin cancer. Most often, these are on skids so they can be moved by mechanized equipment.

At swimming pool facilities, lifeguard towers have also seen improvements in design, with shade provided by umbrellas and steps that make it possible for lifeguards to switch shifts without ever interrupting their view of the water.

Solutions to Vulnerability

If one theme can be drawn from emerging trends in aquatic staffing today, it is the growing recognition of human fallibility. That the most highly trained lifeguards are prone to hesitation and distraction. That the strongest swimmers often can't outmuscle a rip current or rescue someone from one in time. That the most well-meaning pool operator can't keep patrons safe on good intentions alone.

Through the acknowledgment of these weaknesses, and the development of new training, standards, approaches and technologies that mitigate them, aquatic professionals are creating strength where there once was weakness. And in the process, they're working to build stronger, safer aquatic environments for the patrons who enjoy them.