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Layers of Protection and Lifeguard Service

Layers of protection for water safety is an excellent strategy for families and caregivers who need to supervise their children in and around the water. (For more information, see my previous blog and the information on the Parent/Guardian Water Safety page.) Despite the importance of this message, often the message is not extended to areas of supervision like swimming lessons and lifeguard service. The concept of layers of protection must be understood in those areas as well.

Lifeguard Service: Just Another Layer

Since lifeguards are, for the most part, very good to excellent swimmers with high-end basic life support training, there is a tendency to view them as supplanting other levels of protection whenever they are on the job. Often, because of their vantage point and their training and experience, lifeguard do see what the public does not and make rescues of drowning victim in close proximity to many unaware pool users.

Despite their expertise, lifeguards rely on several safety measures and controls to be in place. To say that lifeguards work without these safety measures and controls to help them denies the importance of the layers of protection that make a lifeguard’s job possible. This fact must be acknowledged and understood by pool users, their parents/guardians, the pool/facility operator, and especially the lifeguards themselves.

Layers that Lifeguards Depend On

Even the best lifeguards need help to do their job. Typical layers of protection that facility operators and lifeguard employ to assist lifeguards and ensure their success are listed below:

  • A facility designed with all standard safety features and/or designated swimming areas.
    • Shallow areas clearly marked and roped off
    • Signs that spell out important safety information
    • Safe entry and exit points
    • A hazard-free area
    • Safety/rescue equipment and first aid supplies
  • Facility-specific training with regular refreshers and in-service sessions.
  • Protection for the lifeguard against on-the-job hazards
  • Rules designed to help lifeguards restrict access to danger or to limit potential hazards:
    • Children too young to touch the bottom in shallow water and/or to be counted on to read/understand rules or to be self-reliant must have a parent within arm’s reach.
    • A swim test is required to have access to deep water. For a beach, conditions must allow for swimming as indicated by flags or similar system.
    • Access to diving boards and other attractions are restricted and regulated.
    • Alcohol, smoking, and glass prohibited
  • Plans to cover emergencies and evacuations.
  • Sufficient lifeguards on duty to cover the entire swimming area with overlapping coverage and to carry out the emergency plans if necessary.
  • Swimming instructors take primary responsibility for the supervision of their group even if one or more lifeguards are posted.
  • Additional staff to allow lifeguard rotation and breaks (with policies in place to prevent lifeguards from sitting together while one is on break or perform other duties while watching the water).
  • Supervising staff to provide oversight (determine lifeguard effectiveness and support lifeguards as they enforce rules and carry out their responsibilities).

These safety measures act as multiple layers of protection. They add to the effectiveness of lifeguard who provides surveillance, rule enforcement, emergency activation, victim rescue, and first aid administration. These layers also make sure that the lifeguard doesn’t lose focus or become distracted while working.

How Parents and Lifeguard Supervisors Help Lifeguards

Lifeguard service should not excuse parents/guardians of their responsibility to supervise their children any more than lifeguard service relieves swimming instructors of their supervision responsibilities while teaching lessons. In addition, lifeguard supervisors should constantly watch the area to make sure that lifeguard service is effective.

Parents/guardians should keep an eye on their children and watch what lifeguards and swimming instructors do on duty.

  • Swimming instructors and lifeguards should watch their class or area of responsibility always. Instructors and lifeguards turning away from the class or the water should be “a big red flag” that something is wrong.
  • Lifeguards who sit with other lifeguards while on duty or who seem too relaxed because of posture or lack of head movement may not be scanning the water as they should. Watch for children breaking the rules; do lifeguards see what is happening and do they make the proper effort to correct this behavior?
  • A supervisor should be present and interacting with the lifeguards on duty. The supervisor should not go into rotation but rather should be in a place to see the “big picture” of the entire area.
  • Lifeguards should rotate regularly and the amount of lifeguards in stations should change as the number of pool users change. Having too many lifeguards in stations is almost as bad as not enough lifeguard. There is nothing like four lifeguards watching a dozen pool users to put lifeguards to sleep.

Lifeguard supervisors are there to support the lifeguards and keep them working. These supervisors add a layer of effectiveness to their lifeguard team when they do the following things.

  • Supervisors support lifeguards in their decisions (but this assumes that the lifeguards use good judgment in making those decisions).
  • Supervisors check the effectiveness of lifeguard service and make changes when necessary.
    • Lifeguards should not miss many rule violations. When supervisors see several rule violations by children go unnoticed, additional lifeguard service may be required or perhaps the supervisor needs to have a talk with a particular lifeguard.
    • Do not interfere or confuse lifeguards by holding on-the-job audits of lifeguards (the so-called “red cap” or “red shirt” drills). These drills add a burden to lifeguards (i.e., something else to look for) at a time when their focus should be solely on finding real emergencies. Such drills are an intrusion of a test/evaluation on lifeguards engaged in their primary work (see RID factor for details).
    • During the peak time of a swimming session, the supervisor can stand on the deck to add an extra pair of eyes in a part of the facility away from the other lifeguards. I used to do this for about 20-30 minutes when the session peaked, and it greatly helped reduce problems in the pool.
  • Supervisors should make sure that lifeguard breaks are about 33% to 50% of the duty shift (including rotations to other stations). This means 2 to 3 rotations followed by a break. It can go as low at 20-25% but not for extended periods. It should never go above 50% unless rotations are short. For example, 30 minutes are station followed by a 30 minute break doesn’t make lifeguards more rested; it makes lazy and lethargic.
  • Lifeguard supervisors must make lifeguard refreshers and training sessions as meaningful and fun as possible. They must try to build a cohesive team that work together and encourage each other to stay vigilant and strong.
  • Facility owners and operators should support and empower supervisors and managers the way managers and supervisors support their lifeguards.

What Should Parents/Guardians Do?

Parents/guardians should resist the temptation to simply drop off their school aged children at the local public swimming pool. At least until they know it better, keep an eye on their children and what the lifeguards do. In swimming lessons, parents and caregivers should definitely stick around not only to see if they are learning but also to see that they are safe.

After you have had a look, if you do not see many of the layers of supervision and protection I have listed here, find another place for swimming lessons or recreational swimming. There is probably another just down the street.