Recent Studies Highlight Critical Lifeguarding Issues

As camps head into the summer season, they are faced with a number of challenges related to their aquatics program, including:

  • Finding qualified and appropriately-certified lifeguards and instructors to cover the variety of aquatic activities offered — both in and out of camp
  • Carving out time from staff pre-camp training to verify skills, provide site-specific training, and practice rescue skills
  • Designing an effective in-service training and observation system to help increase effectiveness

Since drowning continues to be a leading cause of unintentional injury death in the U.S. — especially among children — increasing lifeguard effectiveness is a critical risk management issue for camps.

The Studies

A study published in September 2001 by vigilance experts at the Applied Anthropology Institute1 , renowned worldwide for its work with major airline and car manufacturers, shows a number of environmental and job-related factors that affect lifeguard vigilance, including:

  • Vigilance capacity (attentive alertness — ability to detect a problem) cannot be maintained at an optimum level for more than 30 minutes.
  • Noise, one of the major environmental factors at a pool, generally has an unfavorable effect on lifeguard vigilance.
  • The quality of visual scans is critical to detection. The number of children in the pool tends to reduce visual scans of the pool and increases distractions of lifeguard attention. Visual scanning decreases during the day, probably due to fatigue.
  • Early afternoon performance decreases due to normal physiological functions and can be aggravated by factors such as lack of sleep the preceding night, heat, and low motivation.
  • Heat is a major factor — when the temperature is over 86°F / 30°C, vigilance is reduced by 45 percent.

Because seconds count in an aquatics victim’s chance of recovery, Jeff Ellis & Associates2 conducted about 500 tests in more than 90 U.S. pools in summer of 2001 to calculate how quickly lifeguards could spot a swimmer in trouble underwater. Results show that, on average, it took one minute and 14 seconds for lifeguards to spot a manikin that had been placed underwater. Lifeguards noted the presence of the manikin within 10 seconds on only 46 occasions, or in 9 percent of the tests, 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 3 minutes in 14 percent of the tests.

These statistics are reinforced with observations from the legal and insurance areas, as cited by Evans, Feinberg, and Hendrickson in an ACA National Conference Session3 in 2002. The most frequently mentioned issues included:

Not enough (or no) lifeguards

  • ACA standards require established guard/participant ratios for each type of activity and a minimum of two staff members at all times, at least one of whom is an adult.

Lifeguard inattention, due to

  • Fatigue. The AAI study found that breaks, whether with rest or change of activity, have a very positive effect on the vigilance level (see note on 30 minutes or less on one task, above.) For optimum benefit, the frequency and duration of breaks must take into account the time of day: they must be more frequent and shorter when the alertness level is low, for example in the early afternoon.) Experiments show the value of alternating activities (e.g., surveillance, lessons, maintenance operations) rather than a continuous vigilance activity.
  • Failure to recognize someone in distress. Contrary to what most people think, drowning victims usually don’t yell or wave their arms to alert someone that they are in trouble. They are in a state of shock, and are often silent — disappearing in seconds.
  • Task intrusion upon supervision. Make sure lifeguards have no other assigned duties when they are expected to be vigilant.
  • Distraction with conversation or other events.

Facility Defects

  • Positioning of lifeguard creates blind spots (e.g., with “blobs” or multiple activities)
  • Hazardous conditions (e.g., drop offs, cloudy pool water)

Failure to post, review or enforce rules

  • Rules on such things as boundaries, diving restrictions, behavior, and safety systems are critical.

No documented orientation or in-service training for lifeguards

  • See the following training suggestions.

Pools vs. Waterfronts

A 2001 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report4 indicates that about 4,000 people die from drowning in the U.S. every year, and 50-75 percent of those drownings occur in open water such as lakes, rivers, and ponds.

Your camp has certified lifeguards, but are they and your camp staff prepared for the unique challenges your waterfront presents? A majority of lifeguards receive their training in pool environments where the conditions are almost ideal. The water is clear, temperature is monitored, and there are no underwater hazards such as currents or vegetation. In addition, pools are contained areas, where you can see all corners and the bottom.

Camp waterfronts, however, present a unique environment — one which many certified staff have never seen or been exposed to as a lifeguard. The weather plays a factor, water conditions can change suddenly, underwater hazards exist in the form of drop-offs, vegetation or currents, the temperature of the water and air is at the mercy of Mother Nature, and it is a wide-open space. While waterfronts should have “contained” areas (ropes and docks or other barriers that outline the swimming area), being able to see the entire area from surface to bottom at all times is virtually impossible. This poses a real challenge for the lifeguarding staff.

What CAN camps do to improve competency in lifeguards?

Whether your camp has a pool, waterfront or both, camp administrators should review aquatic procedures and training in light of these findings. To further strengthen your program, several building blocks of in-service training will assist your waterfront director in training your staff for the challenges of either. This includes pre-camp training, physical conditioning, and routine skills practice.

Precamp Training
Three things need to happen when your staff arrives at camp during your pre-camp training: Identify your entire waterfront, verify skills, and review and practice waterfront procedure.

  1. Identify Your Waterfront
    Do your staff know exactly what your waterfront entails? Include ALL of your staff, not just your waterfront staff, in identifying exactly what your aquatics program encompasses. Begin with what bodies of water are included — both in and out of camp (lakes, rivers, pools, mountain streams, large bodies of water such as the ocean or Great Lakes, etc.) and discuss the specifics of each environment that will affect their ability to guard or supervise an activity. This can include vegetation, currents, wind, waves, temperature, depth, clarity, structures, etc.

Next, identify all the activities that happen on the waterfront. Activities such as swimming, canoeing, water-skiing, kayaking, sailing, windsurfing, jet-skiing, and even SCUBA all comprise various parts of the waterfront program. While boating and water-skiing activities require a personal floatation device (Standard PA 23), emergencies can still arise, and lifeguards and other staff need to be prepared and familiar with each area.

Be sure to identify activities in your program that are held around water but not necessarily in the water. Do you inform your staff of the potential hazards when the small creek on your back property swells with rainwater after a storm or when the county releases water out of the nearby reservoir? When hiking, does your staff decide to cross creeks or rivers or walk through boggy areas?

A near miss: Two counselors were walking back to camp from a cookout with their cabin group through a bog area with open spans of water. Making a game out of it, the counselors decided to have the campers jump from one patch of bog to the other; other cabins had done it before, it was a long-standing camp tradition and they were having a blast. As one camper began to cross, she stepped toward the opposite side, missed the bog and fell into the water, completely disappearing out of sight. Fortunately, the counselors reacted quickly and performed a reach assist while the camper was still under water. Even though they couldn’t see her, they were able to reach her and pull her to the surface.

Lesson: Areas such as these pose a risk even though entering the water was not part of the activity. Your entire camp staff should be informed of potential hazards such as this.

  1. Verify Skills
    Once you have identified the various skills and certifications needed, your waterfront director needs to verify the skills of all lifeguards and boating supervisors (see ACA mandatory standards PA-15B and PA-20B.) Rescue skills in the water take practice and require stamina and endurance. Skills verification should include basic swimming skills, rescue techniques, spinal management techniques, and physical endurance. Better to find out now if your staff are capable of making a rescue before it happens, than realize they can’t when it does.

Good risk management (as well as ACA standards) requires written documentation that each person has demonstrated skill in rescue and emergency procedures specific to the aquatic and activity areas guarded. Simply put, your lifeguards and instructors not only need to demonstrate those skills, but also your waterfront director needs to write down what skills were checked, when they were checked, and the proficiency
of the skill.

  1. Review and Practice Waterfront Procedures
    Emergency procedures should be established in writing for all aquatic activities and rehearsed periodically. Plan to spend some time reviewing procedures and allow enough time for staff to practice to the point where they feel comfortable with the procedures. While standard PA 6 requires practice for your waterfront staff, ALL of your staff should be familiar with procedures in the waterfront area.

Many of your non-lifeguarding staff can be used as ”lookouts.” Lookouts are used to assist your lifeguards in watching swimming and waterfront activities and informing lifeguards if they spot an emergency. Standard PA 3 states that lookouts should be oriented to their responsibilities and required to demonstrate elementary forms of non-swimming rescue. Lookouts should never, under any circumstance, enter the water to perform a rescue.

Physical Conditioning
Physical conditioning is a key element to in-service training. Provide opportunities for your waterfront staff to maintain and even increase their physical endurance. Have your waterfront director design water workouts and include warm ups, distance swims and sprints both with and without equipment. The longest distance they swim in sprints should be equivalent to the longest distance they need to cover in the area they will be guarding. Water training should always be included in their physical conditioning but cross training opportunities can be a good supplement to work out different muscle groups, and give variety to the staff. Mountain biking, running, weights, tennis or other sports are just a few suggestions.

Skills Practice
Skills are verified in pre-camp training but for lifeguards to be as effective as possible in the event of an emergency, skills need to be practiced on a routine basis. Your waterfront director will be familiar with the skills each guard should practice but include rescue skills, spinal management drills and the use of the type of emergency equipment your camp has available. Your waterfront director should also develop a series of scenarios for staff to respond to. These scenarios should include any type of accident that might occur in any area of your waterfront including missing camper, active and passive drowning, submerged victim, spinal injury (in the swimming area and other areas of the waterfront), boating accidents, swamping, etc.

While the opportunity to work out and practice skills on a daily basis is preferred, we also know it isn’t necessarily practical in the camp environment. Workouts and skills practice should be done on a regular basis (preferably twice
a week), and don’t have to be exceptionally long (20 – 30 minutes). This means carving out time for lifeguards to do it during the camp day; early in the morning, before lunch, during rest hour or other time you find available that will work with your schedule. Staff can also practice in pairs, rather than trying to get the entire lifeguarding crew together at one time.

In-service training for lifeguards and other waterfront staff is essential to keep your staff in shape, and their skills sharp. As the AAI study points out, training contributes to “automating” the attention of lifeguards, which can help maintain the vigilance level.

1Coblentz A, Mollard R, Cabon Ph, Bibiographic Study on Lifeguard Vigilance, Applied Anthropology Laboratory, University of Paris V Rene Descartes; September 2001
2Ellis & Associates, Kingswood, TX, and Poseidon Technologies Inc., Atlanta, GA, First On-site Study of Vigilance Shows Lifeguards Can’t Possibly See Everything, All of the Time; December, 2001
3Hendrickson J., American Red Cross, Evans W., Markel Insurance, Feinberg G., attorney Wilson, Elsor, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker: Lifeguard Management — How Competent and Prepared are Your Guards?; American Camping Association National Conference, 2002.
4Branche CM, Stewert S. (Editors). Lifeguard Effectiveness: A Report of the Working Group. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; 2001.

Originally published in the 2002 Spring issue of The CampLine.