Buoyed by Innovation

The Latest Trends in Aquatic Staffing

By Chris Gelbach

As recreation managers consider how they staff their facilities and train their lifeguards and pool operators, new approaches are buoying them toward more efficient operations and enhanced patron safety. A growing recognition of the weaknesses in staffing approaches today is helping to define this new direction.

An Embrace of Standards

One weakness being addressed is a lack of universal standards. Aquatic facilities have traditionally been regulated by a patchwork of varying local, state and federal codes. To bring greater safety and consistency to aquatic operations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has neared completion of its Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC).

After several years of effort, the first edition of the long-awaited resource will be published this summer. It will have a significant influence on the development of aquatic standards at every level—including aquatic staffing.

"In the aquatics industry, there are so many gray areas, a lot of times, companies or individuals don't want to say 'this is what you have to do'," said Juliene Hefter, executive director and CEO of the Association of Aquatic Professionals. "This [the MAHC] will provide that feedback, and that's going to become the standard of care, and you could have issues occur if you're not going to be following those recommendations."

According to Michael Beach, Ph.D., associate director for Healthy Water in CDC's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, one area in which the MAHC will provide more guidance than many existing state and local codes is in its emphasis on facility operators.

Beach noted that about one quarter of the diarrheal illness outbreaks point to operator error, since they are outbreaks that should never occur if a pool is being operated properly. And in a CDC sample study that looked at more than 120,000 pool inspections, one in eight pools were closed immediately because of serious public health violations.

"We really need people to understand that when it comes to pool operators—we have to professionalize this—it's not a trivial issue to operate a pool," Beach said. "There are many opportunities in which we can cause illness and injury. In these chemical outbreaks and injuries that we see, the person didn't have a clue. They didn't have the training."

To help facilities in their aquatic operations, the first edition of the MAHC will also include checklists of the things the pool operator should look at daily. "It's supported by the outbreaks we see," Beach said. "If an alarm was going off for three days, that says nobody went in the pump room for three days. It's not earth-shattering; it's just saying we've got to routinize it and check these things on a regular basis. Because when we don't, that's when we have the chemical injuries, drownings and outbreaks."

The MAHC will provide training guidance for pool operators as well as for lifeguards and lifeguard supervisors. "It doesn't say who needs to be trained or how many people," Beach said. "It says what needs to be done."

The code will also detail the need for record-keeping—something that Hefter sees as a weakness today that could haunt many aquatic facilities should they have a serious incident on site. "You need to be able to go back seven years to say, 'This is all the training that I provided for my staff. These are the drills that we've done. This is who was in charge of them; these are the certifications of the staff.' And unfortunately, I go to a lot of facilities that don't keep those records," she said.

Experts agree that establishing more universal standards will go a long way toward enhancing patron safety—they just need to be the right standards. B. Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), a national association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers, noted a prominent example in the surf lifeguarding world.

"We work very closely with the American Red Cross, which has open water lifeguard training, but they make a strong point that the training is not intended for and not appropriate for the surf environment," Brewster said. "Despite this, many of the [surf] lifeguard agencies in New England are using Red Cross training as their basic requirement. So we've been working in that area to encourage them to reevaluate that."

For those managers whose surf beach operations do not meet USLA standards, Brewster recommends the standards as a guidepost. "It would be a worthwhile exercise for a manager to say, 'Go to the USLA website, look at what the standards are and tell me where we're meeting them and where we aren't.' Even if they don't want to become USLA certified, that's an easy way for them to find out where there may be weak points in their operation."

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.

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.

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