Tag Archives: scanning

Define Water Safety Supervisors Carefully

Supervision is an essential aspect of water safety. Parents and other guardians supervise their children, group leaders watch over their participants, and operators of swimming pools, beaches, and water parks hire lifeguards to scan swimming areas. All these types of supervision can be equally effective despite using different methods to ensure water safety.

Supervision by Parents/Guardians

Let’s start with parental supervision. Parents, guardians, babysitters only need to keep track of a few kids. Easy, right? Wrong! Children of all ages can quickly get in trouble. Small children often escape parental supervision and find themselves near the water unsupervised. Even when children are in the water under parental supervision, they can get into trouble with just one bad decision about diving, exploring deep water, etc. Here are some tips:

  1. Very young children need to be supervised at all times. They can reach the water and drown in the time it takes to answer the phone or flip a couple burgers.
  2. Use layers of protection to keep children safe. Contrary to what some swim schools might tell you, learning to swim at 3 months is not as important as constant adult supervision at the pool and in the home and barriers (e.g., fences, covers, locks, etc.) to water sources inside and outside the house. Other supplemental layers of protection include alarm systems, supervisor knowledge of water safety and CPR/first aid, and swimming lessons.
  3. When in the water with a young child, keep that child within arm’s reach at all times. Use a U.S. Coast Guard life jacket if necessary, but do not trust floaties, water wings, plastic rings, etc.
  4. For children old enough to read and understand rules, walk them around the pool and show them the posted rules and markers. Discuss why each rule is important. Be emphatic, not dramatic.
  5. When you are acting as a supervisor for your child, do not read, sun bathe, or visit with other adults. Keep eyes on your children at all times.
  6. Have children swim in a designated swimming area where lifeguards are on duty, but do not rely on lifeguards to watch your children. This is your responsibility.
  7. Watch for currents at beaches and rivers that can move children into dangerous water or out of your sight.
  8. Protect your children from the sun, the weather, and water contaminants.

Group Leader Supervision

Supervision by swimming instructors and coaches often goes unmentioned. The absurd conventional wisdom goes like this: “Since lifeguards cannot divide their attention between surveillance and a secondary task like teaching, it follows that instructors and coaches cannot teach and supervise their classes.” Right? Wrong!

The first responsibility of any instructor is to provide for the safety of all participants in their group. This is accomplished through supervision and otherwise accounting for participants in their class. The following tips apply to swimming instructors, WSIs, coaches, etc.:

  1. Obtain rescue and first aid/CPR training.
    1. If you swim well enough to get a lifeguarding certificate, do so. Some states consider a swimming instructor or coach with lifeguarding qualifications who supervises his/her group as providing lifeguard services.
    2. If you cannot swim well enough to be certified as a lifeguard, take a Red Cross Basic Water Rescue course, a Safety Training for Swim Coaches course, or equivalent with first aid and CPR.
  2. Dress appropriately for class. Be ready to enter the water or use equipment to make a rescue and to give care. Consider having oxygen, an automated external defibrillator (AED), a backboard, a first aid kit, reaching and throwing devices, a rescue tube, resuscitation mask, etc. accessible for your use. When in the water with your class, wear the rescue tube.
  3. Make sure the pool is free of hazards and ready to be used safely. If you cannot see the bottom, if broken glass is in the area, or if chemicals are out of balance, you cannot hold class in the water.
  4. Remove all pool covers from the pool before allowing participants in the water. Never hold class in a partly covered pool.
  5. Make sure your group is not too large to supervise. If it is, get help in the form of more staff or divide the group so that half the group is in the water and the other half is doing a land-based activity in the bleachers.
  6. Test all participants and decide where they can be in the facility. Remember that most skills can and should be taught in shallow water first.
  7. Position yourself so you can supervise the entire group. Even the strongest swimmers need your supervision.
  8. Teach corresponding water safety information with swimming and water-contact activities.
  9. Follow, don’t flout, the rules. They are appropriate for even the strongest swimmers.
  10. Take attendance before going in the water and again after class before leaving the pool area.
  11. Check the bottom of the pool before replacing pool covers or leaving the area at the end of class.
  12. Develop and practice an emergency action plan for your program.

Lifeguard Supervision

Lifeguards have specialized training to provide supervision of a swimming area. Since lifeguards provide surveillance of an entire area, they cannot focus attention on secondary tasks like swimming lessons, facility maintenance, cashier duties, etc. Tips for lifeguards include:

  1. Get proper training that includes lifeguarding, first aid/CPR, AED, and oxygen administration. Keep your training up-to-date and look for opportunities to take part in refreshers, staff training, etc.
  2. Have proper equipment on hand or accessible, including a rescue tube, a resuscitation mask, first aid equipment, backboard, etc.
  3. Come to work well rested, well hydrated, and mentally and physically ready to work.
  4. Position yourself where assigned or where you can keep constant surveillance of your entire area. Be mindful of blind spots, glare, and water conditions that affect your ability to see everything in your area.
  5. Program your mind with the victim characteristics, rule violation behaviors, hazardous conditions and practices, etc. so you will recognize them when you see them. Do not focus on scanning patterns or become distracted by the activities or people in the water. You have to see people and analyze activities, but do not become lost in the moment and forget to keep supervising.
  6. Scan appropriately and continuously. Perform visual sweeps of your assigned area, looking at the surface, middle, and bottom of the water, going from side to side, top to bottom, and point to point in your area.
  7. Inform, educate, and enforce safety rules in the area. Alert instructors of unsafe conditions or unsupervised participants.
  8. Activate the emergency action plan when your respond to an emergency and make a rescue in the most direct way. You have a duty to act appropriately in each situation.
  9. Take charge of emergency care until relieved by someone of equal or greater training.

All Supervision Is Good Supervision

Each of these supervisors uses different methods to get the job done. In some cases, the coverage of two or more supervisors may overlap and offer layers of protection. Remember all supervision is good supervision if it is adequately and continuously applied by the proper person.

Also remember that children can be taught swimming and water safety so that they can begin, as they grow older, to make good water safety decisions, thereby providing an extra layer of protection: a growing awareness of water hazards and self-reliance in the water.


Scanning 101: Environmental Factors and Scanning (Part 3 of 3)

As a part of scanning preparation, lifeguards should be trained in the supervision challenges of the aquatic environment where they plan to work. Minimally, this training should include an orientation to the general and facility-specific characteristics of the aquatic environment, shadowing a seasoned lifeguard to learn effective supervision practices, and oversight on the job with periodic evaluation.

Adapting Scanning to the Environment

Sample beach zones

Sample beach zones

Different aquatic environments present unique surveillance challenges.

Open Water Environments

Oceans and waterfronts, for example, can have long shorelines with waves, currents, rising and falling murky water, and unseen obstructions. Scanning these areas may be limited to surveying the beach and surface of the water within an assigned zone.

Fortunately, most participants in open-water environments do less swimming and keep their heads above water much more than in swimming pools. In fact, the murkier and colder the water, the less time participants will be underwater and out of sight (unless snorkeling, etc.).


In contrast, waterparks have isolated catch pools and flumes; winding rivers of slowly moving water; play areas with sprays, fountains, and other obstructions; and wave pools with zero-depth entrances and crowded wave zones. With the exception of winding rivers and wave pools (usually handled with zone coverage), each of these areas is supervised by a single lifeguard who provides total coverage. In some cases, the lifeguard is positioned in a catch pool or next to the flumes of a speed slide to assist participants as they exit.

Swimming Pools

Swimming pools provide an environment that necessitates effective scanning. Hundreds of participants of differing abilities crowd into the water to enjoy various water-based activities (e.g., swimming, diving, water polo, cooling off and splashing around, etc.). When you factor in the slippery decks, shallow water, deep water, diving boards and play structures, adventurous preschoolers, underwater swimmers, etc., there are literally millions of ways for people to hurt themselves and others in a swimming pool. Through surveillance, rule enforcement, and emergency response, lifeguards prevent injuries and save many lives.

Zoned Total Coverage

Although some promote zone coverage for swimming pool surveillance, true zone coverage is really meant for environments where a single lifeguard cannot see from one end of the total swimming area to the other. The entire area must be divided with overlapping coverage so that the entire area is supervised.

Swimming pools small enough to use total coverage (i.e., a single lifeguard watching the entire pool) during times of low attendance should use a hybrid of zone and total coverage called zoned total coverage during times of high activity when two or more lifeguards are stationed.

Zoned total coverage

Zoned total coverage

Zoned total coverage is a surveillance strategy for swimming pools that combines the elements of classic zone coverage and total coverage. Assigned lifeguards survey the entire pool area or as much of it as they can see (total coverage) while focusing primary attention on the zone nearest them (zone coverage). This creates primary, secondary (overlapping areas) and tertiary areas of the pool to include in each scan.

In each primary zone, the assigned lifeguard actively enforces rules and responds to emergencies. In overlapping areas of primary zones (secondary zones), the assigned lifeguards provide the same level of surveillance but defer emergency response to the lifeguard that recognizes the emergency first and activates the emergency action plan.

The entire pool outside the primary and secondary zones should also be included in each lifeguard’s scan, but this is mainly to detect hazards the primary lifeguard cannot easily see. Rule violations can be enforced by any lifeguard, but emergencies detected outside the primary and secondary zones should be pointed out to the primary lifeguard for response.

Improving Environment-Specific Scanning

Some general techniques for improving lifeguard surveillance include adding lifeguards to reduce the area and/or number of individuals being supervised; repositioning lifeguard stations to be closer to the public and to minimize blind spots and glare; and designating the most appropriate rotation schedule.

  • Adding Lifeguards. Lifeguard can be assigned as a rover along the beach, throughout the waterpark, or around the perimeter of the swimming pool, wave pool, or winding river. In addition, lifeguard can be positioned opposite existing stations at a pool, in the surf zone in the ocean or a wave pool, or in a  boat at the outer edge of a waterfront swimming area.
  • Repositioning the Lifeguard Station. To improve visibility, lifeguard stations can be moved or lifeguards can patrol on foot.
  • The Most Appropriate Rotation Schedule. The right number of lifeguards must be deployed and rotated at an appropriate interval. Having too many or too few lifeguards deployed and/or keeping them in one station too long can lead to lapses in coverage.

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.