Tag Archives: supervision

Speaking of Aquatic Supervisors: What’s a Pool Monitor?

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if “pool monitor” is a new term to some. It is a type of swimming pool supervisor used almost exclusively in the homeowner association (HOA) market to provide some supervision without taking on the liability and extra costs of posting lifeguards. To understand how this works, we have to look at a law that is rather common in state regulations for swimming pool operation.

Many state laws call for a sign to be posted at swimming pools that do not require lifeguard services (e.g., hotel/motel pools, homeowner association pools, etc.). Perhaps you have seen such a sign posted:

Massachusetts-No-Lifeguard-Duty-Sign-S-7754Signs like this limit the liability of pool operators when lifeguard services are not required by state law. This is really a notice to swimmers and parents that children cannot swim without adult supervision and, in the case of this sign, that adults should not swim alone.

Pool monitors are the result of HOAs “playing both sides against the middle”: to have the protection of a “No Lifeguard on Duty” sign while providing cheaper “nonlifeguard” supervision at their swimming pools. This is fine except that these HOAs often blur the distinction between pool monitors and lifeguards to the extent that a mixed message is sent to families who cannot tell whether the “lifeguard” protocol or the “no lifeguard” protocol is in effect. The problem is further complicated when the HOA owners/management retain control of pool operation instead of deferring to specialists in aquatic safety.

I took a quick look at the laws in several states and could not find any provision for a “pool monitor.” Either lifeguard services are required or the sign is posted. Period. That being said, here are some ways for HOAs to avoid confusing their membership who are just trying to cool off and have fun in the sun:

  • Pool monitors should not be dressed in lifeguard-like uniforms, carry rescue tubes, sit in lifeguard stations, or otherwise look and behave like lifeguards.
  • Pool monitors should not make swimming rescues with or without equipment. Nonlifeguards should make reaching, throwing, boating, and wading assists only.
  • No Lifeguard on Duty signs should be displayed prominently throughout the facility and handouts should be given to all participants to clarify the policy.
  • Pool monitors should have clearly defined duties and “continuous supervision,” “scanning,” “rule enforcement,” “performing rescues,” etc. should not be a part of their duties. Those are lifeguard tasks and, in situations where there are no lifeguards, these duties fall to the parents of children in the water. Pool monitors may be asked by management to help parents in supervising, rescuing, and caring for their children in and around the water.
  • Pool monitors should not be supervised by the HOA but rather be under the control and supervision of an aquatic specialist like the lifeguard company providing the pool monitors. HOA owners/managers generally lack the knowledge to make good decisions about aquatics, including but not limited to visibility, supervision and crowd control, activities in the area, staff duties, etc. and they may make political decisions that they later deny when a drowning or other tragic event goes badly in the pool and the time comes to deflect liability to the contracting agency who had no say in the decision that led to the accident.

No one has asked my opinion (at least not yet), but I would recommend that lifeguard agencies who provide services to HOAs negotiate carefully the roles that their staff will play at the facility where they will work. It is important to put everything in writing.

Above all, pool monitors either are not lifeguards and should not look or behave like lifeguards, or they should be called lifeguards and the “no lifeguard” signs should be removed when lifeguards are on duty.

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.


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.