In many respects, open-water and water park lifeguards are more vigilant than swimming pool lifeguards because they know they are going to get wet helping guests due to waves, currents and high speed rides.  Critical incidents are also more likely to happen at these aquatic facilities because of the sheer number of people as well as the many and varied challenges swimmers and waders face in these moving waters.  Although swimming pool lifeguards may think their jobs are much easier than their counterparts working at beaches and water parks, in some respects pool guarding can be more difficult.  Because most swimming pools lack environmental and manufactured rides and thrills, pool guards and parents often become complacent with their “safer” water environment.  Complacency and over confidence can quickly set in and many lifeguards simply stay dry throughout the workday and don’t even like to get into the water when asked to.  As a result, lifeguards and parents sometimes miss the unconscious or struggling victim they can’t even comprehend is actually in trouble in their pool.  Because of this, perhaps it is time to call for a reversal of roles at swimming pools.  Lifeguards should be mandated to be in the water more often during the days they work preferably with goggles on.  Whether working or playing, lifeguards in the water should be instructed to scan the bottom and the water column for anything unusual.  If lifeguards were required to be in the water regularly during their workday it would add an extra layer of protection in the water and below the surface.  Additionally, we must have the courage to warn and educate those using our swimming pools that although our lifeguards are well trained, they simply cannot watch everyone all the time.  Supervision is imperative but imperfect!  Although we as professionals know that potential drownees may act deceptively in the water, many parents do not understand this important fact.  Borrowing a phrase from Homeland Security, adults entering our facilities should be instructed: “If you see something, say something,“   when they see anything out of the ordinary.  Whether it is a child on the bottom or on the surface that doesn’t look just right, parents should be instructed to immediately tell the closest lifeguard or other competent swimmer.  Too many children have drowned in our swimming pools with both lifeguards and parents watching, thinking the victim was either safely holding their breath, playing or practicing. What do you think? Do you use similar strategies?

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Comment by Henry on August 22, 2013 at 5:32am

Interesting post. I’ve worked predominantly in surf settings, but also in aquatic facilities. And I think you’re right, there’s often less expectancy among pool lifeguards that they will be called on to perform a rescue or even preventative action, and this can make maintaining vigilance more difficult. I once had a lifeguard tell me that in three years of working at that particular facility, the most exciting thing he’d done was put a plaster on a stubbed toe.

So yes, in some ways the job of a pool lifeguard is more difficult. Particularly when you consider pool lifeguards tend be younger than ocean guards.

I’m not so sure that complacency means pool lifeguards will fail to recognise the signs of a distressed swimmer struggling in front of them (granted this can happen – particularly during shallow water blackout incidents).  I think it’s more likely that they easily slip into habits of not watching or scanning effectively at all.

I absolutely agree pool guards should be spending more time in the water. On busy days (particularly during the school holidays) when the wave pool is running, I will often have a couple guards on the deck and at least one in the water. I also encourage guards to spend time in the water on their breaks – that said, we need to be careful to ensure when a guard is taking a break, it’s actually a break.  

A problem is that many aquatic facilities are understaffed, or staffed with the bare minimum requirement of lifeguards. This means the few available guards are positioned strategically to watch a pool or area, and unfortunately there isn’t enough manpower to also have someone in the water.

I really like the ‘If you see something, say something’ slogan, and would like to see it displayed prominently in pools. I think it does a wonderful job of raising awareness in people’s minds that it’s not just the lifeguards, but everyone who needs to be watching out.

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