Play It Safe
Audits & Training Are Key to Waterpark Safety
By Deborah L. Vence
Most waterparks have a little bit of something for everyone—from high-speed waterslides for the adventurous to tot pools for family fun to lazy rivers for those just looking for a relaxing day at the pool.
With the ongoing popularity of waterparks, though, ensuring safety must be the No. 1 priority. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), an organization in Orlando, Fla., that represents more than 5,300 members of the amusement industry in more than 100 countries, states on its website that "Waterpark safety is a partnership between parents and parks. Parents should always directly supervise their children, especially if children are young or weak swimmers."
With that in mind, industry experts shared their thoughts on what the best practices are in waterpark safety and resource management, the latest lifeguarding trends and how to keep water safer.
One effective method to help ensure safety is assessing staff.
"Auditing of your staff and constant skills review is by far the best method to ensure that your staff is ready for any emergency that comes their way. This can be done both internally and through the use of an outside agency," said Jason Arthur, regional director of aquatics at indoor waterpark Great Wolf Lodge-Cincinnati/Mason.
Similar to Arthur, Richard A. Carroll, senior vice president and chief operating officer for Jeff Ellis & Associates Inc., a company that specializes in international aquatic safety and risk management consulting, noted the importance of conducting internal and external audits, and added that they should occur frequently—internally and randomly by external experts.
"After all, it is about identifying risk exposures before they become catastrophic and then finding a way to eliminate or reduce the identified risk," he said.
Staff training is important, too.
"Best practices for managing aquatic safety start with comprehensive and effective staff training, in particular, your lifeguards and lifeguard supervisors," Carroll said. "Proactive and consistent supervision of lifeguards on duty is critical to consistent swimmer surveillance and proactive lifeguard performance.
"Training doesn't end when operations start. In-service training should be a weekly or bi-weekly event aimed at keeping skills, knowledge and emergency action plans at test ready levels," he added. "If you put your lifeguards in a position to be successful, then the aquatic facility will be successful in maintaining a higher level of safety and risk management."
Jill White, founder of Starfish Aquatics Institute (SAI) and co-founder of StarGuard Elite (SGE), said the best waterpark operations use a complete systems-based approach to manage and reduce risk. Components of this system include:
- Well-trained lifeguard instructors at the facility.
- Determining where lifeguards are placed (zones) based on analysis of sight lines and response times (known as zone verification).
- Lifeguard supervisors who are consistently "on deck" and monitoring that the lifeguards are engaged and vigilant with surveillance.
- Frequent site-specific scenario drills to get the staff working as a high-performance team when responding to emergencies.
- Frequent rotations of lifeguards from station to station.
- Attraction-specific training and certification for those doing slide dispatch.
- Being involved with a lifeguard agency that conducts unannounced lifeguard and facility operations audits several times each year at the waterpark.
Other important waterpark safety best practices, according to Cody Butcher, waterpark specialist at Water Technology Inc. (WTI), an aquatic planning, design and engineering firm in Beaver Dam, Wis., include:
- Quality supervision: "Must 'guard the guards.' From an operational standpoint, proactive supervision and management teams are always the best practice. Proper management will head off numerous issues before they can even get started. Creating and practicing a safety culture from the top down is paramount to the waterpark's overall success."
- Training: "Continuation to push a very high standard of care. The training cycle never ends at any level. All staff members, from lifeguard to general manager, of a waterpark, should receive regular ongoing instruction and know what their role is when the emergency action plan is activated. Training leads to consistency."
- Consistency: "Consistency is one of the hardest aspects to teach to an entire staff. Each person will see and interpret every situation differently. Slight variations in rule enforcement, reaction to conditions or explanations of proper ways to ride an attraction can lead to consistency issues that can result in much larger situations if left unchecked. Trained technicians, consistent quality assurance processes, and well-maintained equipment are the keys to a safe waterpark experience."
In addition, Butcher said auditing the program at all levels involves inspecting what you expect; reinforces training; and informs the management staff of inconsistency in the messaging to the guest.
Detailed records and documentation are crucial: "If it didn't happen on paper, it didn't happen," he said.
And, managing resources includes the following:
- Advanced filtration systems.
- VFDs (variable frequency drives).
- Monitor chemical consumption closely.
- Fix leaks early.
- Water loss, chemical loss, BTU loss, secondary corrosion issues.
- Preventive maintenance.
Keeping Water Safer
One of the most important elements of operating a waterpark is good water quality.
"There are several systems that can be used to keep your water as safe and sanitary as possible. Most parks have moved to using automated systems to monitor chemical balances," Arthur said. "These systems also ensure that proper filtration is being achieved and that the water is being circulated properly.
"However, the biggest factor is the human factor. You can have the best automated systems in the world, but if you don't have a skilled person that is committed to providing the cleanest water in the industry then you will never achieve your goal of safe water."
Meanwhile, White stressed that "Water can never be kept 'safe,' only 'safer,'" and that the "only way to eliminate the risk of drowning is to drain the water from the pool."
Carroll pointed out that keeping water safe starts with the foundation of your rules, regulations and policies for pool and attraction use.
"Pool and attraction staff plays a major role in educating the swimming public of the why's of the policies and use rules—take the time to educate guests as opposed to reprimand. Most guests don't seek to break rules and generally are not aware of why a rule or policy exists," he said.
"Keeping the water safe isn't only the job of the lifeguard staff—all staff can be trained to be aware of certain guest behaviors that are prone to lead to injury or issue, so that all staff can be proactive when it comes to safety in and around the water," he added.
With regard to chemical safety, Butcher noted the importance of:
- Electronic chemical delivery systems.
- Consistent water quality testing and record-keeping.
- Multiple levels of fail-safes.
And, helping to ensure swimmers' safety involves:
- Learn-to-swim programs.
- Coast Guard approved flotation devices.
- Smart designs that limit blind spots and areas of increased risk.
Other tips on waterpark safety can be found on the IAAPA website. They include:
- "Children under 48 inches, non-swimmers, and weak swimmers should wear a Coast Guard approved life vest while enjoying waterpark attractions. Bring your own if you are unsure of availability and fit.
- Dress appropriately, including a hat and loose shirt for when you've had enough sun. Monitor how much sun children, especially toddlers, are exposed to. Note: water shoes are often not permitted to be worn on water slides and attractions.
- Apply waterproof sunscreen before leaving home (reapply throughout the day) and drink plenty of fluids (avoid beverages with sweeteners or with caffeine).
- Children in diapers should be dressed in waterproof swim diapers to minimize leakage. Change diapers only in designated changing areas.
- Read the signs at every waterpark attraction and listen to all audio instructions provided by recordings or staff. Obey all rules and experience-level guidelines.
- Follow the lifeguards' instructions and signal them if you see someone in trouble.
- Like visits to amusement parks and attractions, designating a meeting place is always smart in the instance someone is separated from your party. The buddy system is an excellent way to ensure no children are left alone."
Lifeguards have a huge responsibility in helping to keep patrons safe at waterparks. And, on the subject of trends in lifeguarding, one of the biggest and most challenging is the lack of applicant flow.
"Many parks throughout the industry are faced with short staffing situations almost on a daily basis," Arthur said. "As a result, there are times when operators have to decide to either compromise safety and open attractions without optimal staffing levels or close attractions, which leaves your guest dissatisfied."
He said he is confident that most, if not all, choose to close attractions, which then affects the bottom line.
"There are many creative recruiting ideas out there to attract lifeguards, but unfortunately not all of them are successful. Many parks are using international students to fill their schedules, which is a good alternative," he said.
Carroll said lifeguarding at waterparks provides a variety of attractions, positions and tasks.
"Waterpark lifeguards, at some locations, will also assume tasks that will provide an alternation of scanning and non-scanning positions. In recent years, we have seen parks eliminate attendant-only positions in favor of all lifeguard positions," he said. "This can result in increased vigilance when a lifeguard's position time is decreased and rotations allow for a task balance."
For example, he cited a rotation that has no more than two consecutive scanning positions followed by a non-scanning position. "This alternation of tasks, combined with the shortened time per rotational position, [is] in line with vigilance improvement techniques learned through human vigilance studies," he said.
White said "the hiring of older lifeguards" is a lifeguarding trend she sees.
"Schools are starting back earlier in the summer, so adults (particularly older, retired adults) are being recruited to work during the weekday hours so parks can stay open. It is also becoming harder to attract teenagers into the workforce," she said.
The methods of lifeguarding are evolving more than ever before, too.
"The term 'lifeguard' has become equivalent to an emergency responder," Butcher said. "Lifeguards wear many hats and are tasked with overseeing the safety of bathers, providing customer service, monitoring pool chemistry, along with the operation of bigger, taller and faster waterslides and attractions."
Lifeguards today receive training in spinal management, CPR, AED, basic first aid and providing emergency oxygen.
And, "In some cases, lifeguards receive training in areas of nonaquatic-related emergencies, including the administration of lifesaving drugs like Narcan and Epinephrine injections," he said, adding that equally as necessary is the quality of the training the staff receives on the proper and safe operation of the attraction.
"Before any team member is asked to operate any attraction, they must undergo training in its proper operations," he said. "This training must include protocols for normal ride operations, malfunctions that could occur, customer concerns, and what emergency actions to take when an injury occurs.
"Greater focus is being placed on real-life 'what if' scenarios to help lifeguards and aquatics staff prepare for real-world situations," Butcher said. "Creative managers are always looking to add realism in their classes, on-deck training, or in-service operations."
Another trend to note is online and electronic training methods.
"The digital age has been embraced by many of the lifeguarding training service providers. Access to online manuals, digital content and videos [has] changed the overall training landscape," Butcher said. "Classroom time blended with virtual training platforms and more interactive discussions vs. traditional lectures are becoming the standard practice. This format allows lifeguard candidates to learn at their own pace and have access to their materials.
"But that's just the beginning," he said. "Most operators know that the training process never stops and are continually evaluating lifeguard vigilance and providing additional training opportunities."
Changes in Managing Safety
The expansion and growth of waterparks—with newer, taller, faster waterslides—has influenced to some extent how safety is managed at waterparks.
"Many of the new slides have a whole new element of technology that didn't exist with traditional waterslides," Arthur said. "Most traditional waterslides operate on the principle of gravity. With new designs, many waterslides operate very similar to roller coasters. Along with that comes tracking sensors throughout the slides that allow the operators to know exactly where all riders are at all times."
Carroll said that "Safety is now, and has always been, the most important aspect of our industry. Without the attention to safety, there would not be taller, faster and longer attractions. Failure to properly manage safety and risk in today's world can lead to serious issues.
"Waterparks and other aquatic facilities with attractions will more frequently engage third-party safety and operations consultants as well as third-party inspectors to provide review, validation and commissioning of new attractions to confirm compliance with all applicable standards and best practices," he said. "Consistent and effective site-specific training of staff on the proper attraction operations, including standard operating practices (SOP) and emergency action plans (EAP) supported with dispatch and attraction operation audits will help support safe operations."
However, White said that if facilities are "using a complete systems-based approach to manage and reduce risk, with support from a strong lifeguard agency, 'newer, taller, faster' doesn't matter. The foundations of training and operations remain the same and are continually adapted to the site-specific needs."
The growth of the industry has not changed the overall professional industry goals and objectives.
"Over many years professional waterpark operators have developed plans related to maintenance, operations and personnel training to ensure guest safety," Butcher said. "As the rides and attractions become more significant and quite a bit faster, there is an increased focus on inspection, maintenance and training programs. Waterpark professionals are working hand-in-hand with ride manufacturers, standards-setting agencies like IAAPA and AS™ International, government agencies and in close collaboration with other like-minded professionals to continually update their standard operating procedures."
The next generation of rides and attractions likely will include procedures that are more closely related "to our hard ride (roller coaster) counterparts," he added. "Procedures like evacuations, rappelling for inspections, ride vehicle maintenance, and testing of electronic sensors and systems have been added to the many waterpark professionals daily, weekly, monthly and annual routines."
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