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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  • Marcia

    This is an awesome article! Thanks for pointing out what most of us would never realize.

  • Thanks Marcia

  • Nancy

    I just joined a fitness center and thought it would be a perfect time to let my 12year old son and 15 year old daughter swim in the pool (with lifeguards) while I exercise inside. After reading this article I’ve changed my mind and won’t do that anymore. Thanks for the information.

    When I was about 7 or8 I was taking swim lessons and found myself in a situation like one you described in your distress vs. drowning article. Everyone got out of the pool to talk with the instructor (my sister – in – law) but I was dogpaddling and not getting anywhere! Thank goodness my sister realized I wasn’t with them at the other end and someone came to get me. A drowning can happen so fast. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I appreciate it.

  • Jenna

    Mario – thank you for another great article.

  • Nancy – if the fitness center works their guards alone and without sufficient breaks…..I think that is a very reasonable call.

  • Thanks, Jenna. And thanks for all the support over the last year.

  • Ilan

    I think this is fear mongering.

    I worked as a lifeguard in many pools in college and high school, and have also played water polo and swam competitively most of my life. The only person I have ever had to rescue was an elderly man who had no business being in a pool in the first place. I think he had an underlying health issue (s). We pulled him out without a pulse or breath probably because he had a heart attack. I am not saying that kids don’t drown in pools, but we should keep a little perspective on things.

    IMHO, the best thing is to teach your kids to swim and enjoy the water, and to keep an eye on them in the water. At least till they turn 18 :)).

    Ilan Kerman

  • Ian:

    Coming from a “Research Investigator” your comment is surprising. I wouldn’t have thought that a scientist would base any opinion – “I think this is fear mongering” – on the anecdotal experience of one person (yourself). Just because YOU only had to do one rescue, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen enough to be concerning.

    The number of accidental drowning deaths in the US is measured in thousands, Ian. And that is just the ones who die. For every death, there are at least five times as many aquatic injuries such as lung-infection, sepsis, or permanent and debilitating brain damage.

    I often get comments, emails, and calls from people who tell me they are afraid of the water or afraid to let their children swim. I think this is a shame and not the right approach. I want people to be cautious, not afraid, and understand exactly what the risks are so they can make informed decisions about water related activities. The only way to understand the risks with anything are to look at it from all sides and to – you know – do your homework. Using your logic, my advice about wearing seat-belts would be….It’s fear-mongering…I’ve been driving my whole life and never been in an accident.

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • chipNde

    OMG…thank you so much for bringing the obvious to the fore front of my mind again…there is more to a life guard than s/he being a nice kid…they need help,supervision, and a REAL BREAK…I got the message…Thanks again…DE

  • Shannon

    As a lifeguard at my town pool I used to sit on stand for an hour (4 stands at 3 pools) and get a half hour to an hour break. I’ve stopped working there but my sister still does and she frequently is required to sit on stand for an hour and a half with only a 15 minute break. We think this is unfair and unsafe and now we know the real danger it poses.

  • This is a common thing to see in many pools. 1.5 hours with only a 15 minute break! Ouch. As a guard at a local apartment complex, I would have to watch the pool and the gate – alone – for 4 hours. I would give myself breaks every hour by emptying out the pool. The problem is primarily in lifeguard management….or lack of management.

  • Jamie

    Thanks for the research and well written article. I always learn something and easily relate to a majority of your postings. Rarely respond…yet often read. Thank you for being the Guard on all our safety.

  • CanadianLifeguard

    I work at a waterpark in Canada and we have usually 7 to 9 spot rotations (4 to 6 standing spots, one sitting spot and 2 first aid room spots) and then a 1/2 hour break. We are at each spot for 15min. I think it is a good system because every few hours we get a break and we are only at each spot for 15 minutes.

  • Chris

    Wow. This is certainly a sobering thought. My 16 year old daughter applied to work as a lifeguard this summer at a public beach. She is certified, but didn’t get the job. I love that she loves the water, and that she has the tools to help someone who is in/near the water and in distress. And although I think she is a great kid, I’m not sure I want her handling the responsibility of “lifeguarding” at such a young age. I’ve just discovered your articles, but will definitely make sure she has a chance to read them. Thanks!

  • The Leisure Institute of WA Aquatics (LIWA Aquatics) and Royal Life Saving Society WA in Western Australia have developed a program called Watch Around Water. It is a program that gets everyone watching the water and not just relying on the lifeguard to spot the people in trouble. It educates the parents to be responsible for their kids. Any child under 5 must have an Adult in the water with them at ARMS length AT ALL TIMES. Any children under 10 must have a supervising parent with them in the centre in visual contact at all times.

    We have over 100 pools participating in this program so no matter what pool you go to the rules are the same. Parents Supervise : Lifeguards Save Lives. We employ Lifeguards at the ratio of 1 lifeguard to 100 patrons in the water. All lifeguards undergo re-qualification training on an annual basis. Since implementing this program in Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria have also started to implement our program. Since it began in 2004 No fatalities due to drowning has occurred in any Watch Around Water Accredited Pool. It is something we are very proud of and hope to keep this good record in tact.

    Check out or
    for more information.

  • Honestly thank you very much for bringing this point of view. Its true many times we like to go to the pool and leave the responsibility of watching and safeguarding kids to someone who is still a kid themself. These tips to look for in lifeguards are truly helpful thank you!

  • Raf vittone

    Mario, Give me a call. I want to ask you something about this regarding conversations I had with lifeguards at “Adventue Islands” when I worked there.

  • Scott

    The crew of lifeguards at my city pool are great. They are very professional when on duty, and I’ve seen them pull a dozen kids out of the water over the past few years. Even the 12in deep kiddie pool has a guard watching.

    That said as far as I’m concerned, they don’t exist. Keeping my kids safe is MY responsibility, not theirs. If I wouldn’t let my kids swim without a lifeguard, then they shouldn’t swim at all. Parents should never fall into the trap of thinking that a lifeguard will keep their kids safe.

  • anonymous

    I am bothered at our community pool that there is not an adult supervisor on site. I realize this is probably not feasible, but the guards are all under 18 and just not mature enough to deal with confrontations with adults much less being responsible for the safety of children. I hate going to the pool but my son loves it and I won’t deny him, but I am nervous the whole time trying to keep up with the baby and watch him.

    Anyone who thinks this article is not serious or is fear mongering must not watch the news. Down here in Houston, TX, it is June and over 40 children have already drowned. Last summer a young girl drowned in a community pool monitored by guards and amongst dozens of adults. She fell in, no one saw her, and in fact everyone came to the conclusion that she had been taken by someone. Guards and adults scanned an empty pool again and again looking for her and did not see her. Finally she was spotted underneath a slide where the water was pouring in. It was too late. That story really shook me…her parents were not irresponsible or lazy. She got out of the mother’s sight for a minute and that’s all it took. I can’t even imagine. Another bit of food for thought, the guards at this pool had to be instructed by the 911 operator on how to attempt CPR on her. I am certain they were properly trained, but I think the pressure of that situation was just too much for teenagers.

  • Alicarn11

    A few years ago I took my 6 nephews and nieces (ages 4-15) to a water park. When we entered I was told that because I did not have a swimsuit on I would have to go up a flight of stairs and sit on an observation deck to watch them. I was incredulous and told them that wasn’t going to happen. I was going to be with them at the water at all times! We had a bit of a back-and-forth before they relented. Meanwhile, I watched as their teen-aged lifeguards were flirting and talking with each other as they waded around in the water.