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 March 8th, 2012|Water Safety|9 Comments

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  • JSteuart28

    As always! Another great article from an expert. I wish this was “required” reading for every guard and every pool manager that hires guards!!

  • Blake

    The fact of the matter is a lifeguard should be there as a SECOND pair of eyes. Helping you with their expertise if you miss the fact your child may be distressed. As a society we all need to be looking out for each other when we are in and around the water. Lifeguards should not be leaned on as the first line of defense but the strong second string quarterback who is there only in the worst situation. Have a fun and SAFE summer everyone!

  • rob

    I was recently at the Australian Open (one of the 4 tennis Grand Slams). The Line Judges were swapped out a couple of times during the match. You absolutely can’t stare at one spot for too long.

  • Dean

    Great article Mario………… I was a lifeguard instructor for 15 years and a working lifeguard for 12. Many good memories and some not. A lot of parents do not understand that we are NOT there to babysit their kids. I was fortunate enough that all of the pools I worked at had at least 3 guards on duty. To this day, I cannot get out of the habit of “scanning” the water when I go to the beach, or another swimming pool. I hope to talk with you again soon. Semper Paratus. Dean Nimax – Verona, VA USCG Auxiliary F81 DIV8, D5SR

  • Steve

    Another issue not raised is the need for a minimum of 2 qualified lifeguards and AT LEAST 3 trained persons present to remove a spinal injury from the water.

  • lorryk

    I have worked as an Ellis and a Red Cross lifeguard for many years. Hands down, Ellis trains guards better at dealing with the attention problems mentioned in the article. Lifeguards are audited by Ellis in that they are secretly filmed, and the pool gets graded based on their scanning technique. Guards and pools which fail these audits require remedial training. The scanning rule is 10/20, but no such rule is universally enforced by Red Cross. I’m glad this article doesn’t demonize the lifeguards as so many do! It’s a really tough job, and parents often yell at the lifeguard for saving the child that the parents should have been watching in the first place.

  • Les

    I don’t know, where I come from, it’s the parents job to watch the kids in water. My Mum never brought a book to read while I swam in the water.

  • calmandreposed

    I have to disagree with your assessment of Red Cross guard certification. The ARC DOES audit pools and they DO have regulations on scanning the water.

  • Unfortunately for both the ARC and Ellis (which clearly had it’s own stack of quality problems in training) – the real issue is in lifeguard management. The ARC does have standards for scanning and lifeguard attention – but if you only hear about it in the class you take to get the cert then it wont matter much on the job.