American pool-goers often associate the simple presence of lifeguards with safety, yet every summer, swimmers drown in guarded pools. The presence of a lifeguard is of little use if he is not actively working to protect the swimmers in the pool. So as a swimmer (or as the parent or caretaker of a swimmer), what are some of the signs that can help you tell the difference between a well-guarded pool and a less well-guarded one this summer?
Positioning — the physical positioning of a lifeguard can either set him up for success or confront him with an uphill battle to protect you and your family. Guard numbers and placement should ensure that at least one guard is able to see every corner of the BOTTOM of the pool. Why the emphasis on the bottom? Simply put, although a patron can always experience a heart attack (or other medical event) on the surface, people drown on the bottom. If lifeguards cannot see the bottom, they cannot protect a child unless they happen to see him slip underwater.
- Number of Guards – as a rule of thumb, the ratio of swimmers to lifeguards should not generally exceed 25:1. Under many circumstances, it would be wise to have a significantly lower ratio.
- Placement – likewise, guards should be placed in positions that allow them to actually achieve visual supervision of every corner of the bottom of the pool.
- Chair – Lifeguards should never be guarding the pool from lower than their eye level when standing. In other words, they should either be standing while on duty or they should be situated in an elevated guard chair. Lower vantage points (e.g. plastic, patio furniture-style chairs set back from the pool’s edge) increase glare from the pool’s surface and create a blind spot along the wall closest to them.
Attire/Equipment — lifeguards must be ready to enter the pool, with the proper equipment, to perform a rescue at a moment’s notice.
- Clothing – lifeguards should wear a swimsuit, NOT street clothes of any kind, such as sneakers, sweatshirts, etc. Street clothing will only slow down a guard attempting to assist a swimmer–either time must be wasted to take it off, or the clothing will slow the guard down in the water.
- Equipment – whenever possible, every guard should have a whistle, a rescue buoy (in hand, strap over shoulder), and gloves and a face mask (for protection from fluids while administering CPR, if needed) on his person.
- Sunglasses/Hat – at an outdoor pool, sunglasses and/or a hat can drastically reduce glare from the water’s surface, allowing the guard to better see beneath the surface.
Physical Behavior — above all else, a lifeguard should be actively focused on maintaining the safety of the swimmers at the pool. An inattentive lifeguard is an ineffective one.
- Scanning – lifeguards should be actively scanning their area of responsibility, not passively waiting to hear a summons for help (most drownings are actually silent). While different organizations recommend different scanning techniques, the most important thing is simply that the lifeguard IS scanning. The guard should be moving her head to do this, not just her eyes.
- No Other Duties – this should go without saying. While on duty, a lifeguard is responsible for the safety of those in the pool. Under no circumstances should he be talking on a phone, texting, reading, eating, talking to a friend standing near the stand, etc. On top of that, the lifeguard should not even be performing pool-related tasks such as testing the water, moving lane lines, filling out paperwork, or giving swim lessons. Those tasks should be done either by a lifeguard who is not on duty or by another qualified member of the staff.
Related previous posts to the DC Metro Area Personal Injury Law Blog about pool safety: