I am in the process of writing-up/implementing a scanning audit for our aquatic staff.  We are an American Red Cross facility and we currently do an on-stand professionalism evaluation (posture, bottom scan, attentive, uniform, etc.) but do not have a tool to test what THEY REALLY SEE.  I am aware that E&A have a scanning audit standard but my question is, what do YOU do for testing your staff's ability to scan/recognize what is in their zone?  What kind of drills/audits do you do for this (red ball/silhouettes /Timmy/etc.)?  What
information is written in you SOP regarding this?  What is your disciplinary
action for a failed audit?  Anything else that would help me write this up?  Any procedural write-up would be helpful but not necessary; I am just getting a feel for what everyone else is doing. 

Thanks for your time,

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If you're focusing your guards at the bottom of the pool... you ARE compromising their surveillance because zero accidents in the history of lifeguarding have begun at the bottom of the pool unless it was a water birth.

There is always a pre-cursor if you know what to look for.  Always.

I'm not sure I know how to respond to a watersafety expert who suggests that the task of scanning the bottom of the pool is unnecessary.

I am equally unclear how you define "real emergencies" (as in your next post) since lifethreatening emergencies are no more real than when they occur underwater.


The "History of lifeguarding" is a long time. Off the top of my head: How about hyperventilation drownings with victims 'sitting' on the bottom? How about a seizure in a person retrieving items off the bottom? Give me a minute I'll come up with a few more.
Guards should not "focus" on the bottom any more than they should "focus" on the shallow end. The "Focus" must include the whole coverage area: top to bottom, side to side.

I wholeheartedly agree that there is usually a precursor "if you know what to look for".  For me this is the crux of the problem and a huge pet peeve. We are still not doing an adequate job of showing what drowning looks like. If our books and video show waving, splashing and yelling that is what our guards will be looking for. But that's not what many drownings look like. A "red ball" drill or silhouette or blue cap will tell us if our guards are paying attention nothing more. For many facilities this is important; it's a starting point. It's WAY more important to teach what drowning actually looks like so our guards know what to look for.

This summer we started a "Learn to Look" program, where a supervisor will go behind a guard and for 1 minute, the guard names off everything they see in the zone.  The guard could say...lady in red swim suit, two kids doing handstands, a quarter on the bottom of the pool...everything they see they say.  It helped our guards focus on their zones and let the supervisors know they were not just moving their heads side to side.
I like this. When I have acted as supervisor, I have also watched the different zones on the different lifeguards to see that rules are being enforced. I keep a tally of rules enforced and violations not caught. I use this to measure lifeguard effectiveness.

Let me state from the onset I favor drills for reasons that will soon be clear. I also want to say that the Aquatic profession grows when ideas are debated in open forum. Discounting research that challenges accepted orthodoxy does not grow the profession but serves to diminish it. I am very pleased these discussions are taking place. It is a healthy indicator the profession is moving in the right direction.

To the business at hand.

From what I understand, the general reservation against drills is that they needlessly obfuscate drowning signals and intrude on bather safety because drills and drowning episodes have distinct topologies (specific natures). Although this is a cogent argument, there is other research that suggests drills can be devised to make them relevant for training and valuable in the workplace.

Research suggests humans make subconscious judgments based on heuristics (rules of thumb). Successful heuristics, according to cognitive psychologists, are recognition primed (the result of previous experience). We are hardwired to search for patterns when making judgments based on past successes. Recognition primed decision-making (RPD) relies on the manifestation of associative signals within an environmental structure (situational field). The longer or more intense our situational field exposure, the more primed our recognition capacity becomes.

RPD relies on two processes: Cognitive snap and Evaluation.

A cognitive snap is a reflexive judgment (recognition) that comes on the strength of the associative signals within a situational field.  

Evaluation questions the veracity of the associative signals. For example: Are the associative signals for drowning sufficiently reliable to act on? 

In a pool environment, experienced personnel can distinguish proficient front crawlers from poor ones almost instantly. The angle of the elbows during recovery, the entry of the hands and slack wrists, longitudinal position of the body and sequenced head rotation, are associative signals we dial in on to interpret swimmer prowess. When a vigilant eye recognizes cues for good technique, judgment comes as a cognitive snap. (“Ah, this guy is an experienced swimmer.”) RPD gives us license to leap to judgment with battle-tested confidence.

When lifeguards encounter associative signals for drowning, they judge the cues the same way an observant eye judges swimming technique. Here’s the connection I am struggling to make:

Admittedly employing red balls (or any random drill artifact) as proxy cues for drowning produces safety intrusions because these cues are unrelated (they have different topologies), yet they are the metrics for testing lifeguard alertness for drowning. This suggests paradigm (drowning) and proxy (drill) associative signals are mutually exclusive.

But for this dichotomy (between paradigm and proxy) to hold true categorically implies drills lack gray scale. Yet RPD postulates associative-signal veracity triggers the cognitive snap. Although red ball drills and silhouette bottom drills are proxy cues, silhouette bottom drills and bottom drowning episodes nevertheless share cues absent with red ball drills. It is conceivable to attribute common associative signals to bottom drills and bottom drowning (two different topologies) that arouse symmetrical cognitive snaps.

For example, a lifeguard perceives a blot on the pool bottom. At this level of grasp what is important is for the blot to trigger a cognitive snap for drowning (“There is something at the bottom of the pool that indicates a potential submerged victim.”) Its topology (nature) is unimportant since the blot can result form a bottom drill or submerged victim. 

When drills are designed to elicit a drowning-recognition response, the evaluation process is irrelevant because the cognitive snap precedes it, the very response we had intended to elicit and evaluate. (If the drill were intended to test for rescue, only then would the evaluation portion be relevant with an ensuing discussion challenging the veracity of the drill based on topology.) The wholesale banning of drills based on their proxy status is the equivalent of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

One more twist to this tortuous tale. Drills make possible objective lifeguard performance expectations. Determining a lifeguard’s scanning effectiveness using observation alone provides remote evidence for substandard scanning skill; administering drowning-cues driven drills, on the other hand, sustains direct evidence. Drills deliver metrics for imposing disciplinary action based on unmet expectations and removes opinion from the assessment toolbox. 

Joe you are my hero!


Thanks, Jim. Really appreciate it.

Joe: What you describe here so well is precisely my point and the reason why drills (proxies as you call them) have no place as a lifeguard task when lifeguards are involved in primary responsibilities. Your arguments support my "cogent" position brilliantly, but your conclusions take a quantum leap away from logic and your own arguments.

Having written such a sophisticated reply, I am disappointed that you acknowledge that there is an intrusion but then completely beg the question and hop on the bandwagon in your conclusions.

Once you acknowledge that paradigm and proxy associative signals are mutual exclusive and the only benefit to proxy drills for the lifeguard are the general improvement of his or her overall alertness on the job (which also begs the question at hand - you really cannot have it both ways - an intrusion does not by definition improve alertness and response), your conclusions evade the logic contained in your very premise on your reply.

I completely respect everyone who has given their opinion on this issue. I especially appreciate the scientific approach with which you attack this topic. In the end, you cannot acknowledge an intrusion and the differences (with or without gray areas) between drill signals and real drowning signals, and then fly off to the conclusion that that's OK because of some vague unproven improvement. This simply does not hold water, my friend, but it is more insightful than many responses that would not even acknowledge the points you make.

So, thanks! We really only differ in our conclusions.

Furthermore, I never said to "throw out" all drills. I only want those drills thrown out that impede the lifeguard, that possibly create potential life-threatening or at least potentially delayed responses to paradigm signals due to intrusion. Remember, as I tell my lifeguard candidates, intrusion is just a distraction that has been assigned by your boss. Ideally, we want to minimize or eliminate distraction and intrusion, not heap it upon the lifeguard for whatever reason. I am sure the boss who intrudes in other ways has his or her reasons, but they cannot and should stand when the safety of the public is in question.

This string contains at least a few reference to alternate drilling that does not put the public at risk or compromise the primary responsibilities of our lifeguards. Training and drilling are always secondary duties!




Thank you for your response. As always, you give great consideration to the topic at hand and show great pains to address issues. There are, however, a couple points that I would like to clarify.


First allow me to disabuse you of the notion that I accept paradigm and proxy associative signals as mutually exclusive. To the contrary, my argument posits that some drills mimic drowning signals more closely than others (hence my reference to gray scale) making possible a class of drills suitable for measuring lifeguard performance.

The purported acceptance of “mutual exclusivity” relies on your misreading of my posting, specifically at the end of the paragraph: “This suggests paradigm (drowning) and proxy (drill) associative signals are mutually exclusive.” But the paragraph that immediately follows amends this assessment and frames a contrary view.

The attendant paragraph will flow better if you substitute “dichotomy” with “mutual exclusivity.” As in: “But for this dichotomy [mutual exclusivity] (between paradigm and proxy) to hold true…” Within this context, it should be evident that “mutual exclusivity” is merely a clunky ruse, a straw man no one can take seriously. A more careful reading of my post is well advised.

You also argue, as if I were advocating the contrary point, that “an intrusion cannot by definition improve alertness and response.” But this statement amounts to nothing more than non sequitur noise since nowhere do I ever advocate for this. It was never my intention for drills to improve alertness and response but to assess training effectiveness.

Your aversion to administering drills to lifeguards on-duty is patently absolute. I will grant you drills (planned intrusions) are intrusions by tautological necessity. But your logic over-reaches when you equate drills as an exercise of unacceptable public risk. Let me move to the point on this: I am not aware of a single recorded case where a drill directly contributed to a drowning or near-drowning episode because it forced the lifeguard’s attention away from his primary responsibilities.

My respective position on drills is more nuanced in that I argue they are essential to lifeguard development, and they are most useful when evaluated in “real world” (on-duty) conditions. Remember I argue effective drills target the “cognitive snap” phase of the RPD (Recognition primed decision) process. If lifeguards respond appropriately to proxy signals (that mimic paradigm signals), the results are a good indicator for transfer of learning.

No training can ever be complete without a transfer of learning assessment; if this is accepted, an argument can be made that real-world drills have import.

If an operator demonstrates incapacity to safely administer a planned intrusion (drill), I would hope a re-evaluation of that operator’s defective leadership is in offing. A controlled intrusion is not difficult to administer safely. If it were difficult, our summers would endure an endless body count across the country at the hands of witless operators suffering the folly of ill-conceived drills. Alas this is not the case.


As already noted, your stand is absolute in your prohibition against on-duty drills. And no matter the number of controls put in place, because you can never remove all risk, the prohibition will always remain.


A similar absolutist position can be conceived against exposure to radiation. No matter the controls put into play, radiation exposure always carries risk, thus exposure should always be avoided.


In spite the risks, diagnostic tools (procedures) are utilized because, on balance, practitioners identify a greater benefit in their application.

Applying a controlled radiation dosage (an x-ray for example) is an appropriate diagnostic response for bone fracture; likewise, administering a controlled intrusion (a drill for example) is an appropriate diagnostic response to assessing transfer of learning.

Drills provide operators a vehicle with which to assess transfer of learning and identify lifeguarding performance deficiencies.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I do not favor any activity that draws a lifeguards attention away from his or her primary responsibility (any distraction or intrusion). It is also my assertion that a lifeguard doing his or her job may overlook targets that are not "real" in the sense of being what he or she has been trained to look for. While it is nice to say that the lifeguard should see everything, attention does not always work that way even in the most alert individuals, and programming the mind with what to look for (top-down controls) provides the lifeguard with the greatest chance that attention capture to drowning signals, hazards, and other potential problems will occur.

This is the crux of the top-down controls vs. bottom-up stimuli argument regarding attention capture. I believe both types of attention capture are possible: that is, while programming the mind with the paradigm signals can greatly assist in recognizing a paradigm target (e.g., drowning victim, rule violation, hazard, etc.),certain stimuli may be strong enough to capture attention even outside the lifeguard's preparation for scanning (e.g.,a proxy target). Although this may be the gray area Joe is talking about, it is far from guaranteed that attention capture will occur due to the presence of a proxy target.

I have read a great deal about attention capture and visual acuity. I have never seen a generalized statement, such as the lifeguard "should see or notice everything." To the contrary, the problem always seems to be how can we improve attention capture and our ability to perceive that which is important for us to see.

This is the reason why we include information about victim recognition and injury prevention in our Lifeguarding courses and in-service training sessions. It is also why we should employ "shadow guarding" and "mock rescues" techniques,so that lifeguards begin to program their brains with what they need to watch for in each area of the pool they will responsible for. Without these "top-down controls" programmed in the mind of your lifeguards, I doubt you would put them up on duty.

Adding a training exercise during on-duty activities is problematic for many reasons. Let me sum up:

**It is an obvious intrusion of a secondary task (training) on a primary responsibility (patron surveillance). Again, thanks Joe for at least acknowledging that an intrusion is involved here. (By the way, no disrespect intended here, but I had to laugh at your use of the phrase "controlled intrusion." A supervisor may feel that he or she is also controlling the intrusion by having the lifeguard "face the pool" while lifeguarding and sweeping the deck or picking up trash. A controlled intrusion is still an intrusion - an assigned distraction!)

**Paradigm triggers and proxy triggers ARE mutually exclusive without gray areas (Joe - I read your post carefully). I have yet to see one that resembles a drowning victim even at first glance. Having had the experience of these drills as a lifeguard, a head lifeguard, an aquatics coordinator, and an aquatic examiner, I must say that I have never personally confused the proxy for the real thing nor has anyone else I have ever observed during these types of exercises. When the lifeguards recognized the proxy trigger, they instantly knew it was a drill, not a real emergency. (When recognition was delayed, I have observed lifeguards engaged in their work, not being inattentive.)

**For lifeguards to be more successful in recognizing a proxy, they must include "false" top-down controls in their preparation for surveillance duties. The extent to which these false controls displace real controls cannot be known, could be a little or could be a lot, but any displacement of real controls that aid in victim recognition and attention capture is inappropriate. As far as Joe's statement: "I am not aware of a single recorded case where a drill directly contributed to a drowning or near-drowning episode because it forced the lifeguard’s attention away from his primary responsibilities," I would respond and say that there is no way to measure the long-term effects of any intrusion on a lifeguard's effectiveness. Since the intrusion may impede the lifeguard's effectiveness even when a drill is not scheduled (i.e., the lifeguard is scanning for the drill at the cost of a degree of lifeguard effectiveness), the connection may never be made. I would further say that I am unaware of any nonanecdotal study or test of the effectiveness of this type of drill over other less invasive drills and techniques to prepare the lifeguard for his or her surveillance duties. (As an interesting aside, when I went through training as a Red Cross aquatic examiner, the Red Cross did not advocate this type of lifeguard testing but actually took lifeguards on break and moved to an area of the pool where the public would not be impacted to run simulated rescues to evaluate lifeguards. Some of the people in my training class wanted to hold the types of invasive proxy drills advocated by others here, but the position of the Red Cross is that the risks outweighed the benefits, so this type of "on-duty drills" were not included in the Aquatic Examiner Program.)

**If a lifeguard is not successful in recognizing the proxy trigger, this may be due to inattentive lifeguarding OR very attentive and proper lifeguarding. These tests fail to be conclusive (and I am most distressed that other responders here cannot recognize this fact because it indicates a potential disconnect between the lifeguards being tested and facility management implementing the test).

There are other risks to holding this type of drill during public swim sessions, but the forgoing are my chief complaints.

There are many more things I could say, but I wanted to comment about the "x-ray analogy" used by Joe to conclude his last comments. It is a ridiculous comparison since there are many noninvasive ways of training, drilling, and testing lifeguards, but there may not be other less harmful ways to find a tumor. Also, the benefit of finding a tumor is clear; the benefit of staging rescues using proxy triggers during public swims are far from clear but do constitute an intrusion and potential risks to the lifeguard and the public. (And finally, if I were presented with a choice between an x-ray option or some other option [like ultrasound] that does not bombard my body with ionizing radiation, you know what I would select every time!)

Let me reiterate:






Sorry for all the caps. I appreciate everyone here and only want to help the aquatics programs that have access to this site. I will be happy to share the details about other drills that enable you to train lifeguards and prepare them for duty. Please drop me a message at any time....


Thank you again for your response (although I can do without the caps).

For purposes of keeping this exchange on course and seeing the forest from the trees, let me stake out our respective positions.

We both share concerns that there is widespread misconception about the value of drills as they are currently administered industry wide. We also agree the mechanics of “top-down controls” and the theory of RPD are invaluable to training. But we part company as to whether it is possible to administer on-duty drills safely and whether they provide valid indicators for transfer of learning. 

Now allow me to advocate my rationale for my positions.

Again, I posit that paradigm and proxy drills have distinct topologies (one is a drowning episode, the other is not) but their “associative signals” are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Let me see if I can make this point clearer.

That drowning episodes generate “paradigm” signals for drowning is self-evident.

Artifact-driven drills (red balls, yellow shirts, ping pong balls and the like) are unreliable because they are proxy, not paradigmatic, representations for drowning. These proxies amount to a gentleman’s agreement giving license to a fictional relationship between artificial and drowning (paradigm) signals. Arguably, employing these signals as the standard for vigilance creates a risk of reprogramming the brain and infecting it with false drowning signals. Are we agreed?

So here’s the recap:

Drowning episodes manifest signals lifeguards must capture to be effective.

Artifact-driven (red balls, yellow shirts, ping pong balls) drills make poor substitution for drowning signals because there is a fictitious conflation between the two.

But what if all proxy drills are not created equal? Suppose drills vary in their proximity to drowning signals? Is this even possible?

If so, would it be possible to engineer a class of drills to replicate drowning signals?

What would this class of drills look like? Here’s a hint.

Take the following hypothetical:

Suppose a lifeguard climbs into the tower, begins scanning and immediately encounters a facedown-floating person. The lifeguard makes a mental note but continues rounding out his initial scanning cycle. He begins his second scanning cycle and again intercepts the motionless body. Again he makes a mental note with a budding apprehension that a cluster signal for drowning is in the offing. He finishes his second scanning cycle and begins his third (say 25 or 30 seconds after his initial detection) and again confronts the still motionless body. By now the “cognitive snap” for drowning triggers. The second phase of the RPD comes into play: the “evaluation” of the drowning-signal strength (should he or should he not take action). Let’s take up the narrative under two possible follow up scenarios:

Scenario 1: After capture of the drowning signal and evaluation of the signal strength, the lifeguard initiates rescue. It turns out the victim was indeed unconscious and in need of assistance.

Scenario 2: After capture of the drowning signal and evaluation of the signal strength, but before initiating rescue, the floater lifts his head for a quick bite of air and resumes floating. The floater is all right and later admits to being mesmerized by a penny slowly and precariously rolling edgewise towards the deep-end drain.

Scenario 1 depicts the paradigm signal (and capture) for drowning. This is the result of effective scanning and recognition training.

Scenario 2 depicts an unintentional high-fidelity proxy signal for drowning. Because it generates a false-positive signal for drowning (since the floater is not drowning), it technically qualifies as an intrusion (as I have previously stated). Ironically this is also proof for transfer of learning because the lifeguard read the signals associated with drowning correctly.

Arguably 2 exemplifies the capacity to generate a class of high-fidelity proxy drills useful to measure transfer of learning because these signals are indistinguishable from the paradigm.

Here’s what I can surmise.

Although scenario 1 is a drowning episode and 2 is not, 2 emits drowning signals indistinguishable from 1.

By logical extension a class of drills emitting high-fidelity drowning signals is possible.

But what does a high-fidelity proxy drill look like? Here’s one possibility.

Let me add scenario 3 into the mix:

Scenario 3: During capture of the drowning signal and evaluation of the signal strength by the lifeguard, the “victim” all the while has been a stand-in for a “surface drill.” He is a non-descript swimmer wearing non-descript trunks, simply and haplessly floating at the behest of the lifeguard supervisor.

I will now argue the only difference between scenario 2 and 3 is “intentionality.” Scenario 2 is unintentional while 3 is a deliberate drill. Intentionality is a state of mind that may or may not manifest outward expression. In the instant case, the floater is completely motionless and exhibits no behaviors. Whatever the floater is thinking or not thinking it is inaccessible to public scrutiny. But the signals (the outward manifestations) for 2 and 3 are indistinguishable up through and including the cognitive snap. And both 2 and 3 manifest signals indistinguishable from scenario 1(the drowning episode).

What possible qualia, sense data, phenomena, manifestations or behavioral traits distinguish the three scenarios that top-down controls would reveal? How are the putative “false signals” for 2 and 3 to be differentiated from the paradigm signals of 1?

My guess is that from the initial through the third cycle scan and cognitive snap, there are no observable signal distinctions to be made. Far from being mutually exclusive, the drowning signals from the three situations are indistinguishable.

There’s an added twist to this argument that warrants special mention:

In the hypothetical, the lifeguard encounters the signal cluster (floater) three times during scanning and his apprehension grows with each signal exposure. After 3 three cycles of exposure the drowning signal achieves critical mass and the lifeguard is compelled to respond. It is not unreasonable to expect that some drowning situations should take two or three (scanning) cycles before there is confidence in the signal. But with low-fidelity proxy drills (using red balls or yellow shirts), an initial capture is sufficient to know with confidence it is a drill. A floater is a floater (the signal cluster is ambiguous and its interpretation up for grabs); but a yellow shirt in the water can only mean one thing: drill. This is another reason why low-fidelity proxy drills are inadequate.

One more point I wish to clarify. In my definition of intrusions I distinguish between “intentional” and “controlled” intrusions. An intentional intrusion re-tasks the lifeguard by assigning extraneous duties – such as sweeping the deck – at the expense of pool vigilance. By comparison, a controlled (planned) intrusion introduces a false-positive drowning signal in an effort to capture learning but does not re-task the lifeguard away from pool vigilance. With a controlled intrusion, the lifeguard is left unobstructed to continue to ply learned vigilance tactics unabated. Intrusions, it turns out, are not created equal.


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