Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., is not known for being quiet about his causes. These days, the 57-year-old is speaking loudly about three major issues: shallow-water blackout, genetic drowning triggers and pool-bottom visualization difficulties for lifeguards.
The director of Aquatics and Safety Office for Athletics at Penn State University and founder of the Aquatic Safety Research Group ramps up on his missions armed with surveys, videos, research and papers all backing his point. It’s a trademark approach he’s developed during his 30 years as an expert witness, creator of the Five Minute Scanning Strategy, author and speaker on aquatic risk management.
For shallow-water blackout, he’s fighting to stop athletes and others from holding their breath as long as possible underwater. “I want to get the word out that we should, in all our facilities, ban prolonged underwater swimming,” he says. “This problem is going to continue to get worse because of a variety of factors.”
Factors that encourage the practice, he says, include stunt performers on TV, coaches instructing their swimmers, and endorsements by the military. When the swimmer blacks out and drowns, the blame is often placed on the lifeguards, not the swimmer.
Similarly, he argues, lifeguards and facilities are often wrongly blamed when swimmers drown from stroke, heart attack or other medical events.Griffiths says that the coroner reports drowning as the cause of death, rather than the other event. “It’s very important for lifeguards and facility managers and directors to realize sometimes people die in strange places, and when people die in swimming pools it doesn’t mean that… they’re guilty.” He says water safety textbooks need to include information on how to use an automatic emergency defibrillator, because even the best of swimmers have heart attacks.
Lastly, Griffiths has been pushing for changes in lifeguard scanning – this time, from the bottom up. He uses a demonstration video in which a mannequin on the bottom of the pool disappears from view when the water is disrupted. Because of the video’s effectiveness, he’s trying to get funding to illustrate the causes and prevention for the other two issues as well.
He’s so impassioned on these subject matters, he often barters speaking engagements about chloramines to include discussion on the other topics as well. He’s visiting state conferences and associations, pool management groups and aquatics associations to spread the word. “I’m just hoping [these associations] will gather information from other groups,” he says. “And I think the more information they get, the better off their findings will be.”