Tag Archives: Ellis and Associates

Scanning 101: Attention Capture and Scanning (Part 2 of 3)

To be successful, scanning must result in the timely recognition of distressed and drowning victims as well as hazardous conditions and practices that require lifeguard response. In other words, scanning must lead to prompt and consistent attention capture and the correct analysis of each situation.

Bottom-Up Triggers vs. Top-Down Controls

One of the most debated issues in the study of visual attention has to do with the role played by bottom-up triggers and top-down controls in attention capture. In the context of lifeguard surveillance, top-down controls refer to the ability to select and focus on the criteria for attention capture during scanning. Bottom-up triggers refer to the capacity of certain attributes or behaviors to capture attention, irrespective of what the scanning lifeguard is focusing on or trying to find.

For example:

  • Top-down controls: When a lifeguard assumes a station, he or she should focus on the physical signs that indicate hazardous conditions, dangerous practices, and distressed and drowning victims. By keeping this focus, the lifeguard is in essence “programming” his or her senses to detect these signs.
  • Bottom-up triggers: While scanning an area of the pool, the lifeguard’s attention might be drawn away momentarily by the bright color of a swim suit or a skillful dive performed on the 1-meter diving board.

Let’s assume that both types of attention capture can and do occur during scanning. The most consistent and reliable method for scanning must be the one lifeguards can learn, control, and program their minds to look for: top-down controls. In other words, if the lifeguard understands potential hazards, the activities that lead to injury, and the behaviors of weak swimmers and distressed and drowning victims, these characteristics can lead from preattentive analysis to focused attention, reaction, and response.

In contrast, the lifeguard does not, by definition, control or program the mind for bottom-up mechanisms. These simply appear unexpectedly and, therefore, may or may not be detected during visual sweeps.

The Problem with Lifeguard Vigilant Testing

A great example of the inconsistency of bottom-up attention capture during scanning can be found in the results of so-called lifeguard vigilance testing. This testing uses a false trigger (e.g., a red shirt, red cap, floating object, or a submerged manikin or silhouette) to signal a mock rescue during an actual lifeguard shift. The lifeguard closest to the false trigger is timed from its appearance until the lifeguard recognizes it and responds, by activating the emergency action plan and entering the water to make the “rescue.”

In 2001, Ellis and Associates conducted more than 500 of these tests at 90 pools and waterparks across the United States. As reported in the 2002 article “Lifeguards Watch, but They Don’t Always See” by Joshua Brener and Michael Oostman, it took lifeguards, on average, one minute and 14 seconds to detect a manikin submerged in the pool. Brener and Oostman went on to use this average to draw the conclusion that lifeguards are not always vigilant on the job and that drowning would have occurred if the manikins had been real victims.

I strongly disagree with these conclusions. First, they are far from scientific. It is altogether possible that the lifeguards tested were doing a good job of scanning with proper top-down controls. Even though submerged manikins simulate a drowning victim, they do not look real and may be screened out during the preattentive feature recognition stage. If lifeguards are informed of vigilant testing in advance, they may be distracted from their primary responsibility to the extent they focus on finding the false trigger. And, if they are not informed of the test, their preattentive recognition of a false trigger (a fake victim) is likely to cause confusion, resulting in a delayed response.

Lifeguard vigilance testing is a bad idea because:

  • These bottom-up triggers (i.e., silhouettes, manikins, etc.) are not reliable attention capture mechanisms.
  • If lifeguards focus on these triggers, they interfere with what the lifeguard should really be looking for. This makes these tests an intrusion of a secondary task by management (i.e., a test/evaluation) while lifeguards are engaged in a primary duty (i.e., scanning the pool for real issues/victims). This violates the spirit, if not the letter, of Dr. Frank Pia’s RID Factor. Lifeguards that do better in vigilance testing may actually not be focused on the primary goal of surveillance.
  • These tests also put lifeguards and patrons at unnecessary risk from the staged rescue in less than controlled condition.  This must occur during a real rescue, but it cannot be justified for a mere test.

Using Top-Down–Control Scanning

Lifeguards can learn top-down–control scanning by:

  • Developing an understanding of what they are looking for as they scan. This includes:
    • Learning the safety rules for the swimming areas they supervise and why those rules are in place
    • Understanding how injuries occur and what characteristics make up common hazards
    • Visualizing the characteristics of distressed and drowning victims
  • Discussing with other lifeguards on their team how to enforce safety rules and handle common problems in each area
  • Focusing on these things as they scan


Scanning 101: Scanning Mechanics (Part 1 of 3)

Scanning is a surveillance technique used by lifeguards to actively supervise the public in an aquatic environment (e.g., beach, swimming pool, waterpark, etc.). To scan effectively, lifeguards must make broad, continuous visual sweeps of their area of responsibility for recognizing victims and identifying hazardous conditions and practices.

The Mechanics of Scanning

Girl Holding Her BreathProper scanning requires the use of the lifeguard’s entire field of vision. Each visual sweep must be broad, emphasizing the peripheral range both up and down and side to side. Utilized in many situations to detect important visual information not being focused on (such as while operating a motor vehicle), peripheral vision can be used by lifeguards to detect the characteristics of distressed and drowning victims as well as the unusual sights that indicate an emergency. Just like driving a car would be impossible without expanding one’s vision to the periphery, proper surveillance of a beach or swimming area cannot be effective without the information obtained using peripheral vision.

As the lifeguard performs each visual sweep in a scanning pattern, his or her head should move in a continuous circular pattern that cuts through the area of responsibility and traces its edges. This moves the lifeguard’s central vision through the area while his or her peripheral vision sweeps from bottom to top, front to back, and side to side, gathering patron information.

Scanning must be continuous, and the scanning pattern should be simple and repeatable. Gaps in scanning, elaborate scanning patterns, and mental activities designed to help the lifeguard stay alert (e.g., looking for patrons of certain ages, with certain hair colors, etc.) can actually become a distraction, interfering with the lifeguard’s capacity to identify real problems. This will be discussed in greater detail in part 2 of this blog.

If the lifeguard detects a problem, his or her central vision, which provides the greatest visual acuity, automatically shifts to the spot to analyze what is going on. This analysis occurs automatically, unconsciously, effortlessly, and early in the perceptual process, followed by focused attention and reaction by the lifeguard based on the situation and the lifeguard’s experience and training.

Making Scanning Meaningful

As lifeguards scan, they must keep in mind two important aspects:

  • The characteristics to be identified (e.g., victim behaviors, rule violations, hazards, etc.)
  • The points that define the boundaries of each scan. Point-to-point scanning refers to the length (front to back), width (side to side), and depth (bottom to top) of each scan. These points must be included in each visual sweep to avoid missing something important.

Maintaining focus on these aspects makes scanning complete and meaningful. Without this focus (or worse yet, if there is a competing focus such as needing to spot silhouettes at the bottom of the pool or to spell out a letter of the alphabet with each scan), the lifeguard is looking at the water without necessarily the correct purpose or scope.

Timing Each Scan

stopwatch1In lifeguarding, seconds count and scanning needs to be performed in a timely manner. For swimming pools and waterparks, Ellis and Associates International Aquatic Safety & Risk Management Consultants has long maintained the 10/20 Patron Protection Rule, which requires lifeguard recognition of a patron in trouble within 10 seconds followed by access to the victim in 20 seconds. The YMCA uses a similar rule called the 10/10 Reaction, shortening the response time to 10 seconds.

For beaches, the Australian Surf Lifesaving Association uses 30/120 (a 30-second recognition and a 120-second response).

Establishing a time factor for scanning is important so that the lifeguard can measure his or her own effectiveness. If a lifeguard cannot consistently complete a scan of his or her area of responsibility in the time frame established for recognition, he or she should report this to management immediately.

Common Errors Affecting Scanning

Lifeguards and lifeguard management often make the following errors that negatively impact lifeguard surveillance:

  • Faulty preparation for duty—Lifeguards sometimes come to work with too little sleep or mental preparation; they may even arrive intoxicated, high, or hung over.
  • Improper lifeguard positioning—Lifeguards who are improperly positioned cannot see their entire area due to blind spots, glare, etc.
  • Improper rotations/breaks—Rotations and breaks help lifeguards to stay alert. But excessive duty shifts in one station, excessive breaks, or even late rotations can contribute to lifeguard inattentiveness.
  • Effects of the sun—Without proper hydration and sun protection, lifeguards can become too “fried” to do their job.

Equipment-Based Rescues: Nearly 20 Years Later

In 2015, it will 20 years since the American Red Cross changed their policy for lifeguard training to equipment-based rescues (i.e., the rescue tube, etc.). Although this move to the rescue tube was initiated by Jeff Ellis and his National Pool & Waterpark Lifeguard Training course more than 5 years earlier and followed a few years later by YMCA On the Guard Lifeguarding, the change in 1995 by the American Red Cross saw equipment-based rescues become accepted almost universally at pools and waterparks throughout the United States.

Rescue tube 10Strategy for Introducing the Rescue Tube

Since this was such as major change, the American Red Cross selected 10 people to training as a National Faculty to teach rescue-tube rescues and the other changes to the rest of the country. The Red Cross had never done this before nor have they done it since.

I was fortunate enough to be selected as a National Facility member. We were charged with bringing the program to all other American Red Cross Instructors and Instructor-Trainers. I led trainings in Massachusetts and throughout Northern and Southern California.

Resistance to Change

There was some resistance to this change, especially from Los Angeles City and County (who do not use rescue tubes for pool lifeguard service to this day). They had some valid points for their objection:

  • Having the rescue tube on a tower can be dangerous if the lifeguard does not control the tow line. (I have actually seen a lifeguard get snagged by the tow line as she was entering the water and subsequently injured by being pulled back and striking the tower and side of the pool.)
  • Swimming with the rescue tube underneath the lifeguard slows the approach to the victim.
  • Use of the rescue tube lowers the skill level of the lifeguard.

There were even predictions that the use of the rescue tube would so weaken lifeguard abilities that lifeguard service with rescue tubes would prove totally ineffectual. That, of course, has not happened.

How Lifeguard Service Has Improved

Most of today’s swimming pool and waterpark lifeguards were not alive when the cross-chest carry was. In those days, we learned a set of skills (e.g., the hair carry, the underwater approach, etc.) that were often not needed to effect swimming pool rescues. In most cases, a rear approach and an armpit carry was all that was needed. Adding the rescue tube simply added a barrier between the lifeguard and the victim and buoyancy to make handling the victim easier.

In fact, in the 25 years since the Jeff Ellis gave rescue tubes to his lifeguards and the nearly 20 years since the American Red Cross made the rescue tube essential and universal for lifeguard service in swimming pools and water parks in the United States, this service has remained strong (and, in some ways, has even gotten stronger).

After so many years, there can be no doubt that the rescue tube is an effective tool for the lifeguarding:

  • It provides support and protection for lifeguards in deep water while transferring buoyancy to one or more victims.This prevents injury to the lifeguard as well as to the victim(s).
  • For short distances, the extra time it takes with the rescue tube to reach the victim is negligible. For longer approaches, allowing the rescue tube to trail makes the approach nearly as fast.
  • Returning with the victim on the rescue tube is faster and easier due to buoyancy cancelling some of the victim’s weight.
  • Using the rescue tube for support helps during deep-water passive victim rescues, multiple victim rescues, spinal victim support and backboarding, and rescue breathing in the water.
  • Use of the rescue tube also helps support swimming instructors while they work with learners in deep water.

Even the argument that the rescue tube allows less skilled swimmers to work as lifeguards ultimately supports the position that the rescue tube is beneficial. Swimming pools in many sizes and shapes require lifeguard service; less experienced and/or skilled lifeguards gravitate to smaller and shallower pools because they do not do as well on the swimming tests provided by pool operators. Still, these individuals find work at facilities where their swimming skills are more than enough, and the rescue tube still benefits them.

Old School and New

Now that a generation of equipment-based rescues has come and gone (and the world of lifeguarding has not come to an end), it may be important to remember that there are times when a lifeguard may be separated from his/her rescue tube and should know what to do. For example:

  • When towing a victim back to safety, the lifeguard may lose the rescue tube. The lifeguard either retrieve and reposition the rescue tube or may elect to continue swimming the victim to safety.
  • When making a submerged victim rescue or submerged spinal victim rescue, if the lifeguard must submerge deeper than the towline allows, the lifeguard must take it off completely. When the lifeguard brings the victim back to the surface, he/she may not be able to reach the rescue tube. If a second lifeguard is not available to reposition the rescue tube, the lifeguard should move to safety without the tube.

All swimming pool lifeguards should master a few basic skills to assist them when separated from the rescue tube. For example, repositioning the rescue tube, inserting the rescue tube under the armpits of another lifeguard, escapes, dive to the rear, towing techniques without the rescue tube, eggbeater kick, and even cross-chest carry. This helps to complete a swimming pool lifeguard’s preparation.

This is not to suggest that lifeguards should start a deep-water rescue without their rescue tube, rescue can, or rescue board. It is simply that, although all deep-water rescues should begin with the rescue tube or other appropriate equipment, they may not all end that way.