I have a confession:  I’m not a big fan of data.  It leaves too much information out, allows too many assumptions in, and it seems to provide more questions than answers.  But if there is one thing about data I have come to love, it’s that it is an awesome tool in the changing of minds.  Changing the minds of aquatic managers and professionals  – of parents and caregivers –  about the reasons people drown would change behavior.  Changing behavior would mean less drowning.  It’s a simple formula sure, but it’s true.  If you can change the way people think, you change them, and drowning is a people problem.

Last month in San Diego, I spoke at the National Drowning Prevention Symposium. In that talk, I used data to try and convince the crowd that the needle on drowning isn’t moving. It isn’t. In ten years there hasn’t been an appreciable change in the numbers.  There is a flat line in the data when it comes to drownings, and it is unacceptable to me and others, and we want to change that.

The needle isn't moving: drowning death data. (source: CDC)

One of the things that I believe we can change is the way lifeguards and parents pay attention to swimmers in the water.  The Guards and Parents (GAP) Attention Survey is designed to measure the times that people get distracted when watching swimmers in the water.  That’s it.  If collected properly, that data can be used to change things. Here’s how:

Imagine if we could know – definitively – that the lifeguards in say, LA County, are the least-distracted lifeguards on any beach in the U.S., or that the guards at a particular water park, on average, are more distracted from the water than their peers at a different park. If we had data that proved that single lifeguards at apartment pools get distracted more than two guards – or not; if we knew that parents are actually better (or worse) than certified guards at watching their children.  If we had this kind of data, we could identify best practices and then find out how the best got that way.  That would be data we could change minds with.

Who is the best at paying attention?

Why are they the better at it?

Tell everyone.

I believe if we can do those three things, we can move the needle.

Please help:

I’ve got this idea.  This website gets about a million visitors each year, and there are 8,000 interested people on the site’s Facebook fan page. That’s terrific, but what can we do with this?  Well, if you are interested enough in water safety to read this site, can I get you to volunteer to help with my survey?

Here is the plan (think Wile E. Coyote and a map): 

I’m building a survey:  one page, accessible by smartphone or tablet (or use the paper version and simply enter your results online).  The survey will list reasons for distractions and times, and also some basic demographic information about location and the guard or other caregiver you are observing.  There will be no interaction with the subjects – just simple observation. Here is what I need you to do:  during any ten minutes you want, as many times throughout the summer as you want,  watch a lifeguard watch the water  and record when and why they stop looking at the water, and for how long.  That’s it.


Volunteers will take a 5-10 minute online class that discusses the survey and how to conduct it, and will be asked to commit to at least two observations over the course of the survey (June – August).  There will be other guidelines developed prior to the launch of the survey, and observers must work with a partner.  It would be impossible for me to watch a lifeguard NOT watch the water without taking over his duties for him or her, so I can’t ask you to ignore the hazard created by the distractions you are watching.  These are things that can be worked out prior to the survey launch.  What I need to know first – in my best Jerry McGuire! – “Who’s coming with me?”

I need you to volunteer. C’mon – you’re going to the beach anyway, right?  You might as well save some lives while you’re there.




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. This survey is not endorsed by nor does it involve neither organization. 

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