Wet Your Whistle

Improving Aquatic Safety and Aquatic Management

By Kelli Ra Anderson

First, some good news. As the aquatic safety industry moves toward more research-based protocols, responds to laws requiring greater vigilance around drain covers or more stringent regulation to keep pathogens and contaminants at bay, and is enjoying the greatest networking and information-sharing boom in its history, there is hope that the nation's aquatic-related deaths and injuries can be and are being reduced.

The sobering news, however, is that no matter how many laws, new protocols or new ways to keep our aquatic environments safe, the community will only be as safe as its aquatic manager's dedication and skill to follow through on his or her responsibilities to oversee the safety of patrons, the quality of the pool environment and the training and effectiveness of the staff.

The Staff of Life

Thankfully, among the many resources available to such dedicated aquatic managers, a new aquatic management assessment tool is about to be released that will help ensure that nothing critical within all those duties is overlooked.

"All the jobs aquatic managers do are critical," admitted Roy Fielding, participant in the creation of the assessment tool and the aquatics director and senior lecturer and exercise science program coordinator of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, N.C. "But the most challenging is staff training because lifeguards are your front line of individuals' safety, and they have to understand that they're professional rescuers and that it's a serious occupation. There's no compromise there, and you have to set the standards and have them met."

But the million-dollar question is, what standards? What is the standard of expected on-duty behavior of lifeguards? The standard of professional qualification? Or how about the standard of training? Long-time veterans in the industry will tell you that whatever those standards, the quality of the aquatic management style is an essential part of that safety-improving equation, an attitude that sets the bar for everything else.

According to Leland Yarger, coordinator of aquatics and instructor of physical education at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., a facility is a direct reflection of the management and the staff. If poor standards are tolerated, Yarger said that patrons will assume no one cares and respond accordingly. Thankfully, the reverse is also true, as was evidenced at a bathhouse in Holland, Fla., with a reputation for destructive kids. When the facility came under new management that no longer tolerated even small infractions like candy wrappers on the floor, the poor behavior went away, and people took ownership and pride in the facility. Expectations determine the outcome.

"Everyone has their own unique management style," conceded Bob Ogoreuc, professor of aquatic education at Slippery Rock University in Grove City, Penn. "But when I go into a facility, I want to see that lifeguards are vigilant, using their tubes, and that the facility manager isn't absent. Aquatic managers need to be present with an effective line of communication between staff and managers that is encouraging, but where the guards understand the expectations and duties and where managers make sure they are following them by walking around, interacting and reminding them about what's occurring."

One method he has found useful in evaluating lifeguards has been the application of a rubric in which certain lifeguarding skill criteria are noted every 30 seconds (originally a tool used by rookie lifeguards to observe and learn from the vigilance of seasoned veterans), that he now uses to evaluate his own staff to recognize, in concrete terms, where they are doing well and where they need improvement.

And while Ogoreuc is quick to point out that he understands that an aquatic manager's job is obviously administrative, he is also quick to underline the absolute necessity of being physically present, letting the lifeguards know that somebody is monitoring them, making sure they are wearing a tube, have a whistle, and are at their stand, as well as providing for their care to keep them hydrated and shaded.

Yarger couldn't agree more, citing supervision of lifeguards as a major problem reported by a recent study indicating that aquatic directors spend only 20 percent of their time supervising their staff. "Where many aquatic directors are failing miserably is daily supervision of staff," Yarger said. "I can't emphasize that enough. Plenty of organizations have lifeguards, but many times there's no supervisor because the aquatic director is also the athletic director and they end up splitting their day."

One solution to the problem is to hire a lifeguard manager who can be present, day in and day out, to oversee the lifeguards the entire time they are operating. "This is foreign to a lot of aquatic directors," Ogoreuc admitted. "They hire the lifeguards as professionals, but you need to verify their work and the only way is supervision."

Teaching New Tricks

But how do you know you are hiring a good lifeguard in the first place? Certification certainly is non-negotiable, as well as a background check, but ensuring that their skills are current can only be determined by on-site testing. "You need to ask what will they need to do in my specific facility?" Fielding suggested. "The minimum for certification is to dive seven feet, but what if my pool is 13? Make sure they can do skills for that particular facility. Test in the deepest part of the pool with a weight and have them bring it to the side."

This kind of real-world testing is indicative of the latest changes in the Red Cross's new 2012 program that is requiring lifeguards to train, not just in compartmentalized pieces, as in the past, but with real-life exercises that clock the time it takes a trainee to get in the water, swim, go down, bring up a victim, get the side, get out and do CPR for three minutes. Newer training standards now require that they can perform a rescue from start to finish.

"You want to do a complete rescue and not in pieces," Fielding said of the improved methods he advocated for in the new program. "This will hopefully raise awareness that as facility managers, we need to make sure the lifeguard can do the job they're hired to do. It won't make our jobs easier, but lifeguards will be better trained at that level of competency."

One means to help new lifeguards retain a more automatic lifesaving response from beginning to end is an acronym called STARR. The idea was developed and co-authored by Ogoreuc and Kim Tyson, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin, and is based on research-based data from the U.S. Lifeguard Standards Coalition.

With the goal of having lifeguards use critical thinking skills to recognize trouble when they see it and to automatically know what to do when they do, the acronym helps lifeguards to remember that their job begins with staying alert on their stands and doesn't end until they have made a report of the event, should one occur.

And that last piece is critical. With new protocols and training relying more heavily on research-based data, having lifeguards submit their rescue reports will ensure that life saving methods and training will be even more effective for real-life situations. (For a copy of The Lifeguard Rescue Report go to http://water-rescue.uncc.edu.)

Plan On It

While no one wants an accident or injury to happen in a facility, the fact is that Murphy's Law should not be ignored, but prepared for. "I would have to say that the most overlooked safety issue is the implementation of an emergency action plan (EAP)," said Sue Nelson, USA swimming aquatic program specialist. "It has been reported by swim teams and fitness instructors that they were not aware of the action and how they were to be involved should something happen."

To that end, Nelson advises that all aquatic users be included and informed to become part of the development of an EAP so that no matter the instructor, lifeguard or staff person, all are equipped to handle an emergency situation. Even small details, like ensuring that 911 information is posted by the phone (such as the facility address), will greatly facilitate emergency responders, and can prevent a needless tragedy.

And while certified lifeguards and an EAP will reduce a lot of the guesswork and panic associated with an emergency, it is up to the aquatic manager to ensure that everyone's skills get sharp and stay that way.

"Continuous training is critical for lifeguards so you need to have drills and throw simulated incidents at them so that it's not a matter of thinking, but an automatic response," said Gerald Dworkin, consultant for aquatic safety and water rescue with Lifesaving Resources Inc. and member of the executive board of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (www.ndpa.org). "In my opinion, the lifeguards need on a daily basis to be held accountable for physical standards and weekly training drills. It is up to the facility manager or operator to make sure that that training is available either from themselves, or from a consultant or in networking with another facility."

Often consulting and evaluating cases where lifeguards were present but failed to prevent an accident or drowning, Dworkin knows of what he speaks, citing a recent drowning case in Michigan where the lifeguard failed to recognize and manage an incident that left a child underwater for almost 20 minutes.

It Takes a Village

There's another vital player, however, who also needs to be trained about aquatic safety: parents and caregivers. "Supervision is certainly not to be overlooked, but parents and caregivers need constant reminders about watching their kids," said Kathleen Reilly, pool and spa campaign leader and public affairs specialist with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "This goes for residential and commercial pools where parents think a lifeguard on duty means everyone can relax. They should be watching their children at pools, which are often very crowded, whether or not they can swim."

Teaching parents and caregivers about the signs of drowning, the essentials of drain cover safety and about swimming safety takes many forms. From videos for lifeguards and families about safety tips offered by Reilly's organization, to water safety classes or training tagged onto the end of swimming and membership classes, many facilities are finding ways to educate their patrons to become part of the safety solution.

"One of the communities I work in had water safety awareness week and provided free classes like the Red Cross program," said Yarger, about the community's response to having one of the highest drowning rates in the country. "We found out that if we charged a nominal fee, however, the numbers of people attending went up. The idea of 'free' meant the equivalent of worthless."

Not only should parents and caregivers be educated to be on the offensive, but pool managers need to go on the offensive as well. "They should also ask a lot of questions of caregivers who are going to take daycare groups to the pool," said Terri Lees, member of American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Committee and a community center aquatic supervisor. "Drownings happen to children who are new to a facility and in groups where caregivers, teachers or camp counselors have not been trained to supervise the kids around the water. Managers should take an active role in educating patrons and guards about these issues and have rules in place that discourage lapses in supervision by staff, parents or caregivers."

Lees' no-nonsense approach to the community center where she is the aquatic supervisor includes enforcing protocols such as requiring specific numbers of caregiving supervisors on deck and in the water with groups of children and requires that they be within arm's length of any child with a flotation device; those who do not comply are asked to leave.

Of course, educating patrons about what is expected also requires clear communication. "Avoid problems by signage and by offering classes for swimming," said Steve White, CSP, CST water quality management trainer with Underwater Pool Masters and education director with the American Pool and Spa Association (APSA). "Young participants who fall into a safe, clean pool and have training from the beginning is key."

Clear as Mud

But even if an entire village has been equipped to recognize the signs, no amount of skill will matter if poor water clarity keeps vigilant eyes from seeing what's happening just inches below. With drowning the second leading cause of death or injury according to the CDC for persons aged 1 to 14, 90 percent of those in 2003 were under supervision when they died. And while there are many variables to these scenarios, water clarity plays a significant role.

Water clarity has been and remains an ongoing issue for operators as a result of the differing standards and regulations around the country.

"Just Google 'drowning/cloudy water' and you'll be horrified at news articles that come back where victims are a result of not being able to be seen," said Terry Arko, CPSO, author, educator and technical consultant specializing in chemical water treatment and board-serving member of the APSP. "In one recent case, they even cleared a pool because of cloudiness and only then discovered someone had drowned."

Water clarity has been and remains an ongoing issue for operators as a result of the differing standards and regulations around the country. But whether the water is drinking-water clear at .5 NTUs or allowed by some agencies to max at 1.0 NTUs (relatively clear but usually must be returned to .5 NTUs within one turnover), a more practical standard prevails.

Since the recent passage of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act in 2007 by President Bush, (a law intended to ensure that drain covers are properly installed and maintained to prevent entrapment), the law dictates that the main drain or bottom drain of any pool must be clearly visible (preferably down to its screws and manufacturing label) from the pool deck at all times. Any cloudiness, fogginess or doubt about haze demands the immediate evacuation of any pool.

"Clearly, operators don't want that to happen, particularly during a prime swim time," Arko said. "The advantage of being able to operate—having healthy patrons and revenue—means that if you have to shut down during a summer season, you are losing hours of time. Obviously, that's not a good situation."

According to Arko, water can go from clear to cloudy within minutes. With the sudden addition of a large birthday party into a pool, for example, if insufficient chemicals (clarifiers and oxidizers to help the filter do its job more effectively) are being added, water clarity can change very quickly, requiring everyone get out and the pool to be shut down until clarity is restored.

The key solution to preventing this problem is to ensure that the operator and the equipment (read: the filter) are top rate. Operators should be certified.

"I would highlight that anybody who has anything to do with a pool should be certified and have gone through a commercial pool operating class to understand all those things," Arko said about a job that requires constant evaluation. "It's a matter of diligence. They're in the business of getting patrons in there and members paying and the worst thing that can happen to them is to have accidents happen and people saying it isn't safe. There may be extra maintenance involved, like the addition of clarifier or oxidizing the water more regularly, but if you look at the long term, the resulting damage from not doing this far outweighs the cost."

Don't Bug Me

Water clarity is primarily a function of filtration, but chemistry is also required to protect equipment and especially to protect the swimmer from pathogens like Cryptosporidium and Giardia. To that end, having an operator who understands the vital importance of regulating the pH in the water and to have a system sized to meet the bather load, is yet another reason to make sure you've got the right staff in the right place.

"You've got the sanitizer, like chlorine, and pH, and between those, pH is far more important," explained Mark Caldwell, general manager of Pool Services Corp., who teaches and licenses out of state pool operators from his business in Myrtle Beach, S.C. "It controls the effectiveness of the sanitizers you're using. It is the number one detractor in the ability of sanitizer to do its job because high pH takes the H off the acid and you get a hydroxyl, which has absolute zero killing power."

In his native South Carolina, regulated pH levels have been lowered to 7.0 to ensure the more effective aggressiveness of hydrochloric acid (e.g., at 8.0, only 25 percent of the acid in the pool is actually working to kill harmful bacteria).

However, regulating pH isn't the only challenge. Having a system properly sized to meet bather load demand is another problem far more common than most realize. "The builder puts in pools set by the state specs, but it has nothing to do with demand. Until you open the pool, you don't know what kind of demand you're going to have, and you have to modify the chemistry delivery system in order to do that," said Caldwell who suggested that a properly managed and calibrated chemical delivery system can keep water clear and avert the need for shocking a pool even at maximum capacity by maintaining breakpoint chlorination. "It takes equipment, automation and a pro."

However, sometimes less is more. Caldwell has helped many pools cut down on needless energy costs from using flow rates that are higher than most pools need—especially during their closed seasons—by using variable frequency drives. "This has been very cost-effective on pump motors of 10 horsepower and greater, with payback periods of 12 to 24 months," Caldwell said. "The same principals apply to smaller pump motors, but the payback period is generally three to four years."

"What we do is add a variable frequency drive," Caldwell explained. "We add a speed control to a three-phase motor so that instead of being wide open all the time, we can control what speed it runs at. As you slow the motor down 15 percent, I'm going to reduce energy consumption by 30 percent; if flow is reduced down to 30 percent, I'm reducing energy by 62 percent."

Proper pH, proper sanitation levels (CDC research now shows most resistant strains of Cryptosporidium require 20 parts per million for 12.75 hours in order to inactivate 99 percent), and sufficient turnover rates all play a vital role in keeping water safe. But filtration is also a vital player.

A recent study of pool filters at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, N.C., indicates that of the sand, cartridge and precoat (diatomaceous earth and perlite) filters used, the sand and cartridge filters removed only 36 percent of Cryptosporidium, while the precoat filters removed 99 percent.

More and more professionals, like Richard Cacioppo, director at the Institute for Public Pool Studies at Princeton in Princeton, N.J., are pushing for tighter regulation because the worst pathogens like Giardia (only 3 to 6 microns) simply cannot be filtered out by the larger-pored rapid-rate sand filters used by most pools. DE filters can handle the smaller pathogens, but no regulations mandate their use at this time. "No process will entirely remove the risk," he conceded," but there are methods/equipment that will significantly lessen the risk, like pool vacuums that can filter out sub-20 micron contaminants and constant minimum filtration flow rates."

White also recommends the use of several products on the market that can help even sand filters reduce the incidence of pathogen contamination. "…[O]ne currently approved by the EPA uses a two-part system in the water and the filter," White said. "Its clarifying agent is so refined that it enhances the filtration of pool filters by holding back particles like bacteria, so when you clean the filter, backwash it, you get rid of it."

And getting rid of all aquatic dangers is really what it's all about.

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