It's June and hot outside and you head to the neighborhood pool for the day. The kids want to swim and you just want to be doing nothing for a while. Everyone files through the gate as you scan for an open lounge chair and your friends. The kids have sunscreen on, you have your book, and yes — Mike is the lifeguard on duty. You like Mike. He's a good kid and always nice to yours and he doesn't tolerate too much funny business. He's been a lifeguard here for three seasons now, he's Red Cross certified, and you have seen him in action. With cat-like reflexes and keen eyes, Mike has yanked more than his share of nonswimming kids out of the deep end. "Why don't their parents watch them more closely?" you think. Then you crack open your book as your strong-swimming kids head into the pool under the watchful eye of good old Mike.
Ten minutes later, your 12-year-old is standing over you, dripping onto your book and crying. He almost drowned, but your neighbor, Julie, saw it and got to him just in time. "He took on a little water — you should have him checked out," Julie says. Mike is walking over to you now, confused and visibly upset. He never saw a thing, and it happened right in front of him.
This scene happens all over the water-guarded world, and sometimes, the Julies aren't there and the stories end much worse. And parents grieve and kids — really good kids, like Mike — are never the same again either. We look for someone to blame, of course, and good kids (most pool lifeguards are just that — kids) usually get it first. But the problem very often isn't Mike — it's Mike's boss.
In the story above, which I saw happen at my apartment pool about 20 years ago, Mike had been on duty for two hours before the child that needed help entered the water, and he was the only guard on duty. The apartment complex wanted to lower its liability insurance and, y'know, be socially conscious, so they always had a lifeguard on duty. But lifeguards cost money, and they really only wanted to spend the money on one at a time. As suggested by the Red Cross, Mike got everyone out of the pool for 15 minutes every hour to take a "surveillance break." He would use this time to use the restroom and check the pool chemicals. Then he would get straight back to work.
Mike's boss, the apartment complex manager (who doesn't work on Saturdays) with no training or experience at all in lifeguarding, mistakenly thought that a lifeguard's job is to be certified and be a good swimmer. But that is not at all what lifeguards get paid to do.
Lifeguards get paid to think.
Next time you are at your neighborhood pool or at the beach, I want you to try something. Stare at the water. Stare at the water and constantly move your eyes looking at every person in the water and evaluate them. You can't take your eyes off the water or the people in it — not once. Do this for 30 minutes. It is exhausting. Visual imaging and scanning requires vigilance and taxes your brain enormously. Research suggests that it cannot be done without a substantial decrease in effectiveness for more than 30 minutes. And while a lifeguard's attention can be reset (in a five to 10 minute break, according to Frank Pia, Ph.D.) — it must be a real and complete break. No other tasks or demands for attention.
After two hours of paying close attention to the pool, it is quite possible for a trained and certified and experienced lifeguard to look directly at a distressed swimmer, not make the connection in his tired brain, and move on to the next swimmer. It's not his "fault" — it is the way the brain is wired and it can't be undone. It can only be managed. By himself, the sole employee at a pool for four hours or more, a lifeguard cannot be effective.
Should your pool lifeguard be certified? You bet. Trained? Of course. Alone on the pool deck for more than 30 minutes regardless of the size of the pool? No way. Below is my personal list of things I look for (read: insist upon) before I let my children go into the water without my own eyes on them.
1. At least two lifeguards, or one guard and a supervisor or other staff member (helper), to keep everyone out of the water while the guard takes a real break.
2. The guard gets a real break every 30 minutes.
3. The guard knows to change his point of view of the pool often, never staying in the same spot for too long. Staying in the same spot decreases his attention span.
4. Minimal distractions for the guard: No earbuds in his ears, no cellphones, no eating while watching the water. (Talking is OK and in fact keeps guards alert, but eyes always on the water.)
5. I ask the guard to show me his cellphone. If he can do so without standing up and walking inside to get it — he's fired. I'll watch my own kids, thanks. If you see your lifeguard texting while he or she is supposed to be watching the pool, you do not have a lifeguard on duty.
6. In larger pools, multiple guards should rotate chairs or positions every 15 minutes. Again, changing the view is better for the attention span.
7. The guard has constant access to water (dehydration effects brain function) and is protected from sun exposure as much as practical.
8. The guard on duty is experienced. The Red Cross age requirement to be a "certified lifeguard" is 15. Fifteen! Yes, they have to start sometime, but personally I am not prepared to make life-or-death thinking the sole responsibility of a 15-year-old, for their sake as much as anyone's. They can work with and support a third-year veteran like Mike while they gain experience and actually see some distress vs. drowning scenarios first.
In the end — it really is about understanding the lifeguard's job. They are there to prevent drowning. Drowning can happen in as little as 20 seconds, so a lifeguard's primary job is to pay attention and think. They should be treated and managed and supervised in a way that supports that reality. They need breaks, they need no distraction, and they often need help — in addition to that Red Cross card they got two years ago.
This article is reprinted from Mario Vittone's blog: http://mariovittone.com/.
Author grants permission with understanding that article cannot be edited or trimmed.
Vittone recently retired from the Coast Guard. He's a trained rescue swimmer and boat captain who lives with his family in coastal Virginia.