Good Guard Bad Guard

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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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By | 2017-05-18T15:29:50+00:00 June 4th, 2011|Risk, Water Safety|52 Comments

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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.

  • Devin

    At my ymca we have 5 lanes and a hit tub. One lifeguard guards for 4 hours at a time with only one 15 min break in the middle. Never worked at a pool like this. It is however adults only. Thoughts?

  • j.p.m

    This is so true, I am a lifeguard in a small center with three pools, a 50m, 25m and toddlers pool and I’m only 17 and have been working for 1 year. The most difficult thing at this pool is to stay alert for the whole time I am on deck as we do half hour rotations, staying on deck for a total of 1 hour and then serving customers in the kiosk and desk area for an hour. This is very draining work and the best thing that we can have to help us is parents who are constantly enforcing the pool rules on their children, children who have learnt water safety and parents who actually stay with their children. More people need to read things like this and understand the severity of our jobs and the consequences if we did lack concentration by staying on deck for too long!!

  • Ben

    Well, i’m 15 right now, a boy scout, trained in CPR, First Aid,a and water rescue, so if you fall over right now, I think you would hope to God that my 15 year old self would be standing close by.

  • Zita Berger

    How can you report poor pool management that allows guards to have phones, food and ear buds in during shifts, don’t do regular in-services or test pool chemicals every shift change? Is there a governing body for this type of thing? Does it vary by state or is it national? Red Cross? I really am concerned for my safety and others at this pool. It’s truly not safe to swim where I do and I see this bad behavior every time I’m there. Guarding is about prevention and if you’re allowing the pool to become murky, you can’t see victims drowning or hear them if your ear buds are in. I can’t seem to find a definitive answer online so I need assistance on where to do to report these violations.

  • Carmen

    I recently became a professional lifeguard this summer, wow it is nothing like they train you. They teach you how to scan correctly and all, but it is nothing compared to working 8 hours straight in 90 degree sun with 300 people in a pool all splashing and screaming for half an hour intervals. Our Town Pool is extremely busy and my biggest fear was messing up and missing someone who was drowning and having to live with that. I’m 17 and a half at the moment, but I feel so much more stressed out from those first two months. To any new lifeguards who were in my boat, just ask questions to the older guards. Find out what they enforce strictly, check for definitions of weird words, BRING water, but not so much you’re constantly peeing.

    Good luck, be safe, keep em safe

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  • Zenithial

    I just got my certificate after training for 3 days straight practicing from 8am to 6pm and I’m about to begin working at a local water park in a few days. But just like the story goes, I’m only 16 years old. Don’t get me wrong though, I’ve worked very hard to get certified. I pushed myself very hard and passed every test in first place, or performed the best in endurance tests, such as treading water. I’m very good at making my body work the way I want when I’m in the water. On the last day of training we had our CPR and FBAO test. I don’t know why but I said to myself, “After spending so much time working at this I won’t accept not passing this test.” So I was the first new employee to test and pass with a perfect run. That being said, I know I need more training before I’ll feel comfortable performing either CPR or FBAO on a real person. I think saving a patron in distress will be an easy enough task if handled properly. But I’m worried about some of the other trainees that made it through to become certified employees. They seemed to be less than average swimmers, some had to take the swimming test twice. (The swimming test was just to swim 100 meters, with no time limit.) Others couldn’t keep their head above the water during the tread test. I will give them some credit by saying I never saw them take the make up test. But given what I saw with their first attempt I wouldn’t feel comfortable unless they were made shallow guards. I know it sounds mean but I don’t think they’ll be able to position an unconscious adult victim, let alone swim them out of deep water while giving the necessary treatment.