Is your pool ready for the crowded swim season? If the results of recent tests are any indication, many pool owners and operators may be sweating as much as their lifeguards this summer. Jeff Ellis and Associates recently conducted the first on-site study on lifeguard vigilance. Commissioned by Poseidon Technologies, the study was designed to measure actual lifeguard performance in detecting drowning incidents. It complemented an international review performed at the same time that identified the factors that influence lifeguard vigilance.
The results, frankly, were frightening. They point to the causes that may be contributing to the more than 400 deaths occurring annually in public, life-guarded swimming facilities in the United States.
The study calculated how quickly lifeguards could spot a swimmer in trouble underwater. Approximately 500 tests were performed on-site during the months of June, July and August 2001 at more than 90 U.S. pools that had no prior knowledge of the study, and that differed in size and type. In each case, a manikin was placed underwater in the pool, and a tester started the clock when the manikin was fully submerged.
Results showed that, on average, it took one minute and 14 seconds for lifeguards to spot the manikin. Lifeguards noted the presence of the manikin on only 46 occasions—or in 9 percent of the tests—within 10 seconds, and in 30 seconds or less in 43 percent of the tests. In 41 percent of the tests it took over one minute; it took more than three minutes in 14 percent of the tests.
We all know that every second counts in a drowning incident. The longer a victim is submerged, the greater the chance of permanent brain damage or death. Ellis & Associates developed the "10:20" rule almost 20 years ago. The rule calculates that if a lifeguard can spot a swimmer in distress within the first ten seconds of a drowning incident, and can reach him to initiate aid within an additional twenty seconds, that it remains highly unlikely a drowning accident
will occur. Yet these dramatic results show that drowning, or near-drowning accidents with potentially serious, negative lifelong consequences would have occurred in the majority of the test cases. Videotapes of the tests show the lifeguards were using standard scanning techniques to guard the pool. They clearly look, but do not always see.
I doubt any aquatic facility operators believe their pools are immune from potential drowning or near drowning accidents. Clearly, these study statistics show that anything can happen, even if guards are more vigilant than ever. Why? Because there are just too many factors working against them, all contributing to the fact that lifeguards often look but do not see.
Environmental and job-related factors working against lifeguards include noise and heat, as well as long hours on the job and the monotonous nature of the task. Some of these factors have been summarized in a survey of studies on vigilance entitled Bibliographic Study on 'Lifeguard Vigilance, which was completed by vigilance experts at the Applied Anthropology Institute in Paris, France, during the summer of 2001. The institute is renowned worldwide for its work with major airline and car manufacturers, including Airbus.
This latest review supplements existing vigilance studies on lifeguards at sea. It details results of tests on highway drivers, airline pilots and industrial operators, and uses them to draw implications and recommendations for pool lifeguard vigilance, such as the following from the French study.
• Vigilance capacity cannot be maintained at an optimum level for more than 30 minutes. The detection of critical signals (signs of a swimmer in trouble) in this type of task is never 100 percent.
• Laboratory studies show that the vigilance level will be higher as the number of relevant signals increases and the amount of non-relevant signals (signals other than a swimmer in trouble) decreases. However, drowning incidents with their associated signals are rare, and they occur only randomly. The signal-noise ratio is, thus, very unfavorable to maintaining vigilance.
• Noise, one of the major environmental factors at a pool, generally has an unfavorable effect on lifeguard vigilance. Moreover, noise hinders the ability to share one's attention and tends to focus one's attention on the signals present in the central vision, to the detriment of those signals present in the peripheral vision.
• The performance of lifeguards can be affected by monotony, stress and fatigue. The particular environment in which the job is performed heightens the fragile nature of the performance.
• Heat is one of the factors that has a major effect on vigilance. Given the seasonal aspect of life-guarding activities, lifeguards are often exposed to heat and to conditions that are not conducive to their performance. When the temperature is over 30°C / 86°F, vigilance is significantly reduced — by 45 percent.
In short, lifeguards can't possibly see everything, all of the time. They need advanced training and automated tools to help them quickly detect, and rescue a victim underwater in the first few seconds of an incident.
There are four key areas of change to consider if you want to reduce the risk of drowning accidents in your pool.
1. Verify the performance of lifeguards with an independent source, using unannounced audits and other means to track performance at any given moment.
2. Conduct in-service training, especially training that simulates an accident and involves the entire on-site rescue team, from the lifeguard to the receptionist.
3. Consider using new techniques, such as computer-aided drowning detection
40 Illinois Parks and Recreation