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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.

Ranking Layers of Water Safety Protection

A great way to protect your family around the water is to provide layers of protection that prevent access to water, that alert adult caregivers of unexpected pool access, or that provide supervision and self-reliance around the water. Here is a public safety announcement (PSA) by the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA) that introduces the Safer 3 principle of layers of protection. Here is another PSA by the NDPA with a clever Mission Impossible theme that emphasizes the importance of multiple layers.

Layers of protection have proven to be an effective means of preventing drowning and water-related injuries. Installing overlapping protective measures means that if one fails, others are still in place to do the job of keeping children safe. Any layer you provide that contributes to water safety is worthwhile.

The Need to Rank Protective Layers

Although many water safety groups talk about providing layers of protection, few discuss the need to rank these layers by their relative importance. One theory may be that as long as several overlapping safety measures are in place, it doesn’t matter which one is most important. I have even seen PSAs that quite rightly state that the most important layer was the one that worked when it needed to. Additionally, there really isn’t a scientific way to rank safety measures against one another; any such rating system would be subjective at best.

Still, it is important to recognize that certain protective layers are more applicable to a particular age group, environment, or activity. In fact, certain protective layers that are effective for one group, location, or activity may not work well for others.

For example, take swimming ability. Being able to swim and to self-rescue is a layer of protection that all individuals should develop as they grow up. It should not be the main layer of protection for children under 4 who may not be able to hold their breath, remain afloat, or even find the exit point of a pool or other body of water. Also, swimming ability for children and adults should never encourage swimming alone, overestimating ability, underestimating the environment, or engaging in risky behavior. These possibilities suggest than other layers of protection are necessary even for the best swimmers.

General Layers of Protection

Before ranking layers of protection, let’s list those that apply to everyone. Again, this is a subjective list and not necessarily a comprehensive one:

  • Adult supervision of children at all times
  • Never swim alone; swim with a buddy in an area supervised by lifeguards/water watchers
  • Place barriers (e.g., fences, covers, etc.) around swimming pools and other containers of water with, as appropriate, locks and self-latching gates; use alarms that sound when gates are opened or the water is disturbed.
  • Be within in arm’s reach of small children while you and they are in the water
  • Learn to swim and learn about water safety
  • Learn first aid and CPR
  • Educate your family about pool rules, safe practices, and safe places to swim
  • Use properly sized US Coast Guard lifejackets around cold water and when boating, hunting, fishing, and participating in fast-moving water sports
  • Have an emergency plan, a phone, and rescue/first aid equipment with you at all times

When applied correctly, these layers of protection can be quite effective in preventing drownings and other injuries in and around the water.

Age-Specific Rankings

In the United States, two groups that have the highest drowning rates are children under 5 and young adults from 15 to 24.

  • For the first group, many of the protections listed above can help, but none are more crucial than adult supervision and barriers/alarms. Even recent studies that point to swimming lessons making young children safer around the water are not nearly as important as simply watching constantly and preventing access. (I believe that the exposure to water safety principles at swimming lessons are more of a reason why families with young children benefit than any swimming readiness the infant/toddler might obtain.)
  • For the 15 to 24 year old, having good swimming skills and following corresponding water safety rules and regulations become more important as individuals grow up and learn to apply sound judgment when deciding how to have fun. Parents should still stress safety awareness, set limits, and know where their children are and what they are doing. At this age, children with the best swimming skills may be tempted to swim where waves or currents are too strong, to exceed their abilities, or to attempt risky behaviors such as diving from a height or ocean swimming at night. Being respectful of rules and safe practices is just as important as being an able swimmer.

All other layers of protection need to be in place as applicable, but parents must teach, enforce, and transfer the responsibility for following safe practices to their children as they grow old enough to understand and appreciate these practices. Children who participate in swimming lessons/competitive swimming, who learn to obey the rules and respect the lifeguard, and have aquatic fun safely may even become the lifeguards and swimming instructors of the future, providing another layer of protection as they help other children to develop this knowledge and these skills.

On Being an Unexpected Layer of Protection

My very last rescue occurred a few years back as a “civilian” at Wood’s Cove in Laguna Beach, California. I had been snorkeling alone (oops!) and was coming in after a brisk hour out around the rocks and kelp beds. I remember I had seen a small octopus that day speeding away from me and giant sea bass hanging out just beyond the rocks, enormous and seemingly unafraid of anything.

As a I got close to shore, I saw a boy get picked up by a wave and carried out a few feet from the steeply angled shore.

As I looked at the boy, he appeared to be running in place, head above water, with eyes wide and white. He was holding his own above water but his eyes told me he was afraid. I swam to him and asked if he needed help. He shook his head to say yes. I looked around and saw that there were two lifeguard stationed talking to one another. There was no parent in sight.

So, with masks and fins handing from one arm by their straps, I picked the boy up by the armpits and placed him on the shore about 2 yards away from where he had been. Again, I looked at the lifeguards and searched the beach for a parent who should now be approaching if he/she saw me picking up his/her child. No one saw what I did. Not the lifeguards and not any one else.

I found out the boy’s name was Jason. I asked Jason where his mother or father was. Jason pointed to a woman seated on a towel, reading a magazine. I told Jason to be more careful, and he said goodbye. As I walked across the beach to the street where I parked my car, I told the mother what had just happened and commented that she should “take her nose out of her magazine and keep a better eye on her child.” She seemed insulted as I walked on. I didn’t bother to say anything else or to speak to the lifeguards still carrying on their conversation.

Jason needs to learn to swim, and he also needs to learn about waves and moving water. Jason’s mother needs to watch her child; she should read her magazine at home or while Jason is taking a rest beside her. The lifeguards were not doing their job at all; neither one was watching the water or they would have seen me picking Jason up and putting him down on the shore. These layers of protection had failed, and this is why drownings occur with parents and lifeguards present.

I guess another way to rank layers of protection for water safety is the layer the does the job—in this case, a bystander with lifeguard experience who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.