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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  • Matti

    I think this is a wonderful article. Being in the Aquatic Industry for over 15 years it saddens me that so many pool managers and owners cut corners. When I was 18 I guarded a pool for six hours a day by myself and only got a 10 minute break each hour. It wasn’t until I was a little older and became an American Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor that I truly understood what it meant to be a lifeguard. The American Red Cross has a wonderful training program, but it’s up to the facilities to follow their standards and keep the guards skills up to par. I am a point that I refuse to work or run a pool that does not not rotate, staff and train properly. All lifeguards also need to go through monthly in-services so they can refresh their skills and keep them sharp. Most guards do their initial trianing and never practice their skills until they are required to re-cerity three years later. After working at a YMCA in the past, and now a JCC, that both use(d) Redwoods Insurance Company I wouldn’t want to work at any other type of facility. Redwoods has set forth wonderful standards/expectations for the lifeguards at the pools they insure.

    I would like to add though that it’s not just the lifeguards job to watch the kids. The parents need to be responsible and keep a vigilant eye as well. The pool I am currently manage has only been open for 12 days and we have already made three rescues. In all three instances the children we pulled out where either 3 or 4 year old non-swimmers. In each situation the parents were busy talking to a friend and their child got into water that was over their head in a matter of seconds. (I made one of the rescues my self and witnessed one of the other two). My staff had already made the rescue each time before the parents even realized it was their child that had been pulled out.

    I truly believe that keeping the kids safe at the pool is a team effort by the lifeguard and AND the parent.

  • V.C.

    I totally agree. I would ALWAYS watch my children myself, no matter how good I think the lifeguard is. Even if they are taking sufficient breaks and so on, they have to watch the whole pool, whereas I only have to watch my own children, so I can pay more attention to them.

    Of course, it depends on the age and swimming abilities of the children, but I’m assuming here we’re talking about children that need supervision. How would you feel if your child drowned because you were reading your novel instead of keeping an eye on them?

  • Erin

    I worked at 2 different YMCA pool facilities, and at both was usually scheduled for 3-hour shifts (or more) as the only guard, with no breaks. Even if it was “only” during lap swim times, or late evenings, it was mentally exhausting. And I was not a teenage rookie, I was 25 years old (30 by the time I “retired”).

  • Bobbi M

    Popped over from a twitter link. I sometimes look at the number of kids in the pool and just cringe. There is no safe way for the handful of young lifeguards to adequately watch. Thus I watch my kids. I appreciate the possible back up that the lifeguard will give me. But most of the time it is me pulling them up when they get in trouble. I will keep all of the things in your article in mind this week when I take my 7yr old non-swimmer and my 9yr old newly-minted independent swimmer to our local pool. Thanks for the article and the reminder.

  • Mario, I love your articles. I’ve been reading through your site for about a month and sharing many of them with my friends and family. (I posted a blog about drowning using the NDPA info that I never wouldve seen if it wasn’t for your article on one of my blogs: We spend a lot of time at the ocean and many of your posts are about pools. Obviously many of the points translate, but I’m wondering if you can speak to some differences between what to look for on an ocean beach vs a pool. Thanks in advance!

  • Layla

    Scott, your kids are fortunate! Forty years later, I still remember my “non-swimmer” father diving into my cousin’s backyard pool.

    I don’t swim, and was one-on-two with the preschoolers in the separate wading pool. Several strong swimmers were in the pool. More than a dozen adults were socializing on the deck and watching their kids play in the water. My mother was said her only indication of trouble was Dad’s watch landing in her lap.

    Everyone laughed when my father jumped into the water completely dressed … but they were horrified to realize that he was the only one who saw my younger brother slip at the sharp drop-off into the deep end, and the only one who realized that the child was drowning silently in a pool full of people. From stumble to rescue, the whole incident took about 30 seconds.

    I asked him later about diving in (wearing leather shoes!) when he couldn’t swim; he replied that he could swim “a little”, there wasn’t time to get someone else’s attention, and he knew he could kick off from the bottom of the pool. He made the conscious decision not to waste time taking off his shoes, and didn’t remember taking off his watch … he apparently snapped open the catch on the band and tossed it at Mom as he took a couple of running steps for momentum.

  • Sheri

    Yes, I was a lifeguard and now manage an aquatic centre – too many parents see the neighbourhood pool as cheap babysitting. You’d be amazed at the number of people (we have a rule where kids under the age of seven must be within arms reach of a parent or guardian at all times) that give the lifeguards a hard time when asked to supervise their own child(ren).

  • Celtic Mermaid

    I am a professional lifeguard and aquatic facility supervisor. I’ve hired some great 15 year olds who have learned to scan properly, and fired some idiot 25 year olds. However, the point is made that frequent breaks are necessary. After neary 24 years on deck, I agree. While I consider myself to be an excellent lifeguard, no amount of maturity, experience, nor organization can compensate for getting a small break every hour or so, even if only 5 minutes. While I feel I can maintain alert surveillance for 2 hours, I insist younger, less experienced guards get more frequent breaks. As a parent, I understand the real fear felt when you can’t locate your child at a pool.
    I think the best ways we can protect our kids and our nation’s lifeguards is:

    1. Teach Children to Swim. Get lessons, do it yourself, teach them to swim…it is a life skill
    2. Help Lifeguards maintain surveillance by not distracting them.
    Go to the front reception desk to ask your questions and let guards work.
    3. Understand that guards are NOT equipment fetchers. Get your own equipment and don’t ask them to leave their areas of surveillance because you’re lazy.
    4. Understand they need breaks too and don’t get angry and offensive if a lone guard must clear the pool for a few minutes to give their brain a rest.
    5. A good day for Lifeguards is the one where everyone had a great time and was safe in the water. Help guards by following rules and regulations, keep your children within reach at all times, and don’t be a distraction.
    6….Do try our job. Stand at the deck, scan back and forth with your eyes. You need to cover the whole pool, in 10 seconds taking into account the behavior of every swimmer (horizontal in the water, playing under water or in trouble?, jumping and diving safely, resurfacing after they jump or dive…etc.).
    Don’t forget to check deck areas as well….people may have hurt themselves, may become suddenly ill…etc. while on land. Do this for 10 minutes…don’t allow distractions and remember we do it for hours at a time.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Good advice. I’m not convinced that truly alert surveillance can last for two hours, but everyone’s brain is a little different. My attention span is much shorter 😉

  • Juliesevilla

    the fact that they were at a pool and the first thought when she went missing is very disturbing!! the pool top bottom and middle should of been scaned. with water features its harder to see the bottom of the pool someone should of swam to the bottom or looked better in that area. i have been teaching swimming, lifeguarding and running aquatic centers for 25years. this never should of happened!!!!

  • Juliesevilla

    thats great tell your daughter to keep trying!!! i started lifeguarding at 15 and have not gotten out of a bathingsuit yet.(iam over 40ish) lol some say that 15 is too young and they can’t handle the responsibility, well if given the right training and guidance then she will do great!! my 14 year old can’t wait to become certified as a lifeguard and get to work

  • Matthew

    Speaking with experience I started lifeguarding at a beach when I was 16 (Not too much older than 15). I was trained very well and made some tremendous rescues my first year with no problems. Lifeguards do need to start working sometime and 15 is a reasonable age too me. Also, taking away a lifeguards ability to talk to anyway is a fast way to help him lose concentration. As long as he is able to talk and watch his water (this being key) there is absolutely no reason why that lifeguard shouldn’t be able to talk to anybody. It helps break the monotony which would help increase concentration. I’ve been a lifeguard for 8 years and talking to somebody has always improved my focus on the job. But, I was talking while maintaining a visual alertness on the water.

  • Matthew – how do you know it increased your focus? Because you felt like it did? There is a science to these things. Of course I am not suggesting that there should be no conversation of any kind. Guard’s need to be able to communicate with people around them. On beaches in particular, I believe that first talking to the guard about the conditions is a necessary first step – but that doesn’t mean that you should have a friend next to you carrying on a conversation.

  • willow_ve

    In the United States it seems there are three types of lifeguards. There is “lifeguards” who wear a whistle and stand/sit close to water. There are Red Cross lifeguards who are trained and do a decent to great job (usually depending on the company or management they work for).

    Then at the top end of the spectrum there are facilities that under the training of Ellis & Associates. I worked for five years as a lifeguard trained and certified through Ellis & Associates and I can honestly say they’re the only lifeguards I would trust my kids to. Your eight point list in the article is essentially their basic rules – however the actual training and regimented lifeguard structure goes fare beyond this. If you break those rules, you can and will be fired on the spot. You are independently audited without your knowledge multiple times a year. These instructors/observers supervise, take notes, and then enter the facility to review video, correct minor incidents, run scenarios, and if needed remove someone from duty.

    I know it sounds like I’m shilling for Ellis guards, but I was one for multiple years and even Red Cross certified scares me now knowing the training and discipline it really takes to guard the water.

    For reference I worked at a large muncipal pool with two water slides, diving well, lap lanes, etc., that routinely had 200 – 500 children in and around the pool area. This pool was guarded by a minimum of 7 active guards and 1 head guard or manager at all times. I haven’t worked there in over a decade and I can still recall every position, where the backboard and defibrillator were located, and how long it would take our team to get a neck injury (in a scenario, never actually happened) out of the pool and secured on deck. We averaged 5-7 pulls from the water each day from kids tripping, running, falling into the deep end, etc. The motto was always “If you don’t know, you go.” It was drilled into you that you simply react to situations and the training takes over completely.

  • Sherry

    I am a 3rd year guard at a community pool, and I couldn’t agree more with this article. Many parents treat us as babysitters. We will have as many as 30 kids between 8-12 come to the pool by themselves daily. And only getting 10 minutes out of every hour for a break (during which time I have to make sure bathrooms are clean, and check chemicals, so really I get about 4-5 minutes). Sometimes up in the stand for 2 hours with only a 10 minute break, depending on the rotation schedule. Being in Texas, it gets pretty hot on those stands too. Bottom line: lifeguards are not babysitters.

  • not impressed

    You have no idea how “mature” or not mature people are at certain ages. please take your biased opinions elsewhere. thanks

  • I can’t take them “elsewhere” – this is my site. Sorry.

  • Matthew Steffen

    I agree with Mario, having a conversation while guarding will affect a lifeguard’s ability to effectively guard. We employ 15 year old lifeguards and if trained correctly, given proper breaks, have short enough shifts, and are supervised by seasoned adult supervisors they have the ability to be successful.

  • Matthew Steffen

    I agree that
    Ellis Lifeguards are some of the best in the business. I was an Ellis lifeguard
    and Lifeguard trainer for the 5 years our pool was an Ellis facility. Their
    audits and attention to detail and follow-up is what makes them an excellent
    certification choice.

    Our facility switched over to American Red Cross to save the $5,000 a year in
    Ellis fees. Using the model from Ellis of scanning, auditing, in-servicing and
    holding lifeguards and supervisors accountable, American Red Cross lifeguards
    can be the best out there. It is all about how management runs the facility and
    knows the competencies of its lifeguards.

    We do employ 15 year old lifeguards who are always working with a supervisor
    that is over 18 and has had at least 2 years of guarding experience along with
    5-8 other guards. I am more interested to know what other research is out there
    about the abilities of 15 year old lifeguards.

    Great article overall and one all aquatic managers should read.

  • As an old man now, I worry less about a 15-year-old’s ability to handle the emergency or make the rescue, and more about their ability to handle feeling responsible for a death.