Situational Awareness at Aquatic Facilities

The Boston Marathon Bombing, The Asiana Airline Crash, and the young boy flying to Las Vegas without parent or ticket all evoked a new and important phrase, Situational Awareness (SA), or the lack thereof. Several different definitions of SA come from aviation, the military, counter-terrorism agencies and others. Situational Awareness simply means a heightened mindfulness or awareness of your immediate surroundings. During many catastrophic events when innocent victims die, a lack of Situational Awareness often is cited as the overriding cause. We strongly believe when a drowning occurs at an aquatic facility, a lack of Situational Awareness is a root cause of the accident. Rather than solely depending on well-trained lifeguards to protect the public, we need to increase situational awareness facility-wide including parents, children, coaches, and desk staff in addition to lifeguards.  Teaching all patrons about water safety and the difficulty in detecting drowning victims even for the trained eye is vitally important yet extremely difficult. As a result, the Homeland Security saying If you see something, say something” should be applied to all aquatic facilities. Non-swimmers should especially be identified to all in the facility with clearly conspicuous and identifiable wristbands or necklaces. As The Redwoods Group says “Identify, Mark, and Protect.”  The 5/30 Model of Aquatic Accountability will also help, that is, the 5 Minute Scanning Strategy performed by the lifeguards on-duty coupled with a management walk-about every 30 minutes. A total visual Facility Sweep every five minutes by management, head guard, desk attendant, slide attendant or other employee adds just another layer of situational awareness. Lifeguards Self-Briefing and Debriefing prior to and after providing visual surveillance as well as the Vigilant Voice (lifeguards verbally describe to a supervisor what they are actually seeing while scanning on-duty) are additional techniques to increase Situational Awareness at aquatic facilities. Rachel and I will continue to research Situational Awareness to find effective protocols that will increase total awareness of the aquatic environment. What do you do at your facility to improve Situational Awareness?

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Comment by Ron Arendas on November 11, 2015 at 8:06pm

Situational awareness is a topic of great interest to me, Tom, and I agree that it is a skill that lifeguards need to develop. I would augment your definition by saying that situational awareness is "attention to all you need to know about going on around you when the full scope of your task is taken into account." It combines a lifeguard's knowledge of all particular task-related events and phenomena coupled with his/her perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the anticipation of their status or condition in the near future.

Situational awareness requires (1) extracting information from the environment, (2) integrating this information with relevant internal knowledge to create a mental picture of the current situation, (3) using this mental picture to direct future perceptual exploration in continual cycles, and (4) anticipating future events.

A lifeguard's level of attentiveness is the product of vigilance, the degree of alertness, direction of attention, the quantity of stress and distraction, and, of course, situational awareness.

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