Good Guard Bad Guard

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by Mario on June 4, 2011

in Risk,Water Safety

It’s July and hot outside and you head to the neighborhood pool for the day.  The kids want to swim and you just want to be doing nothing for awhile.  Everyone files through the gate as you scan for an open lounge chair and your friends.  The kids have sunscreen on, you have your book, and yes – Mike is the lifeguard on duty.  You like Mike.  He’s a good kid and always nice to yours and he doesn’t tolerate too much funny business.  He’s been a lifeguard here for three seasons now, he’s Red Cross certified, and you have seen him in action.  With cat-like reflexes and keen eyes, Mike has yanked more than his share of non-swimming kids out of the deep end.  “Why don’t their parents watch them more closely?” you think. Then you crack open your book as your strong-swimming kids head into the pool under the watchful eye of good-old Mike.

Ten minutes later – your 12-year-old is standing over you, dripping onto your book and crying.  He almost drowned but your neighbor, Julie, saw it and got to him just in time.  “He took on a little water – you should have him checked out,” Julie says.  Mike is walking over to you now, confused and visibly upset.  He never saw a thing, and it happened right in front of him.

This scene happens all over the water-guarded world, and sometimes, the Julies aren’t there and the stories end much worse.  And parents grieve and kids – really good kids, like Mike – are never the same again either.  We look for someone to blame, of course, and good kids (most pool lifeguards are just that – kids) usually get it first.  But the problem very often isn’t Mike, it’s Mike’s boss.

In the story above (I watched this one happen at my apartment pool about 20 years ago) – Mike had been on duty for two hours before the child that needed help entered the water, and he was the only guard on duty.  Lifeguards cost money and the apartment complex wanted to lower it’s liability insurance and, ya know – be socially conscious,  so they always had a lifeguard on duty. But they really only wanted to spend the money on one at a time.  As suggested by the Red Cross, Mike got everyone out of the pool for 15 minutes to take a “surveillance break.”  He would use this time to use the restroom, and check the pool chemicals.  Then he would get straight back to work.

Mike’s boss, the apartment complex manager (who doesn’t work on Saturdays) with no training or experience at all in life guarding, mistakenly thought that a lifeguard’s job is to be certified and be a good swimmer.  But that is not at all what lifeguards get paid to do.

Lifeguards get paid to think.

Next time you are at your neighborhood pool or at the beach, I want you to try something.  Stare at the water.  Stare at the water and constantly move your eyes looking at every person in the water and evaluate them.  You can’t take your eyes off the water or the people in it – not once.  Do this for 30 minutes.  It is almost exhausting.  Visual imaging and scanning requires vigilance and taxes your brain enormously.  Studies suggest that it cannot be done without a substantial decrease is effectiveness for more than 30 minutes.  And while a lifeguard’s attention can be reset (in a five to ten minute break according to Frank Pia, PhD) – it must be a real and complete break.  No other tasking or demands for attention.

After two hours of paying attention to something, it is quite possible for a trained and certified and experienced lifeguard to look directly at a distressed swimmer, and not make the connection in his tired brain, and move on to the next swimmer.  It’s not his “fault” – it is the way the brain is wired and it can’t be undone.  It can only be managed.  By himself, the sole employee at a pool for four hours or more, a lifeguard can not be effective.

Should your pool lifeguard be certified?  You bet.  Trained? Of course.  Alone on the pool deck for more than 30 minutes regardless of the size of the pool?  No way.  Below is my personal list of things I look for (read: insist upon) before I let my children go into the water without my own eyes on them.

  1. At least two lifeguards, or one guard and a supervisor or other staff member (helper) to keep everyone out of the water while the guard takes a real break.
  2. That the guard gets a real break every 30 minutes.
  3. The guard knows to change his point of view of the pool often, never staying in the same spot for too long.  Staying in the same spot decreases his attention span.
  4. Minimal distractions for the guard:  No wires in his ears (MP3 Players), no chatting with anyone, no eating while watching the water.
  5. I ask the guard to show me his cell phone.  If he can without standing up and walking inside to get it – he’s fired.  I’ll watch my own kids, thanks.  If you see your lifeguard texting while he or she is supposed to be watching the pool – you do not have a lifeguard on duty.
  6. In larger pools, multiple guards should rotate chairs or positions every 15 minutes.  Again, changing the view is better for the attention span.
  7. The guard has constant access to water (dehydration effects brain function) and is protected from sun exposure as much as practical.
  8. The guard on duty is experienced.  The Red Cross age requirement to be a “certified lifeguard” is 15.  15! – Yes, they have to start sometime, but personally I am not prepared to make the life and death thinking the sole responsibility of a 15-year-old, for their sake as much as anyone’s.  They can work with and support a third-year veteran like Mike while the gain experience and actually see some distress vs. drowning scenarios first.

In the end – it really is about understanding the lifeguard’s job.  They are there to prevent drowning.  Drowning can happen in as little as 20 seconds, so a lifeguard’s primary job is to pay attention and think. They should be treated and managed and supervised in a way that supports that reality.  They need breaks, they need no distraction, and they often need help – in addition to that Red Cross card they got two years ago.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

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  • Shelly

    I know that this article is old but I feel it is still relevant. I work for a community center that doesn’t give me breaks when I work for6 hour shifts. We have no one else on certified to even let us use the bathroom. I would kill for a break every two hours of just ten mins. There are no real laws to protect us lifeguard s from our environmental factors or fatigue. I’m a good guard but wish I had just the minimal support these other guards take for granted.

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  • Hayley

    I’m a certified lifeguard, and I’m sixteen. I feel as if yes, a fifteen year old can make those types of decisions. Granted, where I am employed, you cannot work below the age of sixteen because of company policy. Also, part of how someone lifeguards is based on who certified them. The most common are Red Cross and Ellis. I am Ellis certified because that is what my facility requires, and their rules are quite a bit stricter. During my certification, we visited a facility where the lifeguards were Red Cross certified, and I was very disappointed in what I saw. They were not wearing bathing suits, had no idea where rescue tubes or backboards were place, and played on their phones the whole seven hours I was in their pool. If I did any of those things one time, I would be fired.

    We also rotate position ever 15 minutes, and after an hour, we go into a “down” rotation which is when we clean and take our break. Inside our facility we have 2 pools, and 3 guards – one at each pool sitting in a chair, and one standing between. Outside, we have one huge pool, and between four and five guards, depending on people there. Overall, you should trust the lifeguards, but always go with gut instinct.

    While we were at the facility where the guards where Red Cross certified, we took 4 of our own lifeguards and 2 instructors.

  • Dylan MacDonald

    well you said ” The guard on duty is experienced. The Red Cross age requirement to be a “certified lifeguard” is 15. 15! – Yes, they have to start sometime, but personally I am not prepared to make the life and death thinking the sole responsibility of a 15-year-old”

    i’m a 16 year old Dutch Lifegaurd and i do make those calls and my buddy age: 14 also does it’s our job and we all know CPR and First Aid. there are times that the police calls for the help of those gaurds of 14 or 15 or 16. the Senior Lifegaurds local lifegaurds on station are about 21

  • Candace

    I work at the WORST place for lifeguarding– 7 hour shifts, one lifeguard on duty and NO BREAKS. Absolutely Brutal. After the first hour or two, you can even consider in full on lifeguarding, its more just staring… I hate it.

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