For decades, aquatic safety professionals have wondered why unconscious victims so often
are recovered from pool bottoms by patrons rather than trained
lifeguards. While it has been easy and sometimes lucrative to blame
the guards for not being vigilant and professional, recent evidence
suggests it may not be their fault. In fact, average, everyday
swimmers may have a physical and visual advantage over even the
best-trained and most vigilant lifeguards.
To date, the “recognition, intrusion, distraction factor” has been
most often used to suggest that guards on duty are negligent when
an unconscious person is not detected in a timely fashion. While
the RID factor may be accurately applied when there is a surface
struggle, what explanation can be appropriately used when there is
no surface struggle?
Though short, subtle and silent surface struggles have been know to occur, many victims
begin and end their troubles on the bottom without a struggle or
detection. Many drowning victims can be described as “plunge
downers.” These individuals dive, slide or jump into deep
water and simply fail to surface. They often remain at or near the
bottom because they are complete nonswimmers, or they succumb to
sudden cardiac arrest or arrhythmia that may be induced by genetic
“drowning triggers.” Shallow-water blackout is another
deadly recipe that begins on the bottom.
When a surface struggle does occur, most experts agree that it is shorter rather
than longer. If the motions on the surface are minimal, and the
lifeguards do miss it, detecting the body under the surface of the
water is far more difficult. In many cases, bottom detection may be
In attempting to ascertain what takes place visually when bodies rest on the bottom,
my colleagues and I spent much of 2005 filming what lifeguards
actually see in a variety of pools. To do this, we placed video
cameras in the lifeguard chairs and focused on child manikins on
the bottom while the surface water was still quiescent. Then, with
clear footage of the manikin on the bottom, we waited for natural
surface agitation to begin.
To our amazement, the slightest surface disturbance in the pool — whether
caused by other swimmers, inadvertent splashing or simply the wind
— often distorted the view of the victim. In many cases, the
video, aptly titled “Disappearing Dummies,” revealed
that the bodies underwater were like jigsaw puzzles that were
completely pulled apart as surface agitation and turbulence
increased. This phenomenon occurs in all bodies of water, natural
and artificial. Even under the best of conditions with crystal
clear water, bodies beneath the surface are difficult to detect.
When filming the manikins in this study, turbid water, glare and
obstructions did not exist. In some cases, darker bodies on white
pool bottoms simply disappeared. The 10-minute video clearly
illustrates how difficult it is to detect bodies underwater with
just the human eye. Unlike a clear glass window that perfectly
still water presents, surface water that is disturbed creates an
obscuring window by means of reflective angles and edges that
prevents penetrating vision below.
So now we know why swimmers in the water often recover bodies on the bottom of pools
— rather than it being done by lifeguards on duty. Swimmers
eliminate the reflective angles on the surface by having their
faces just below the surface. Goggles enhance this visual advantage
further. Hence, the popularity of snorkeling, scuba diving,
glass-bottom boats and aquariums.
Many lessons emerged from our experiment:
1 Whenever surface
disturbance exists, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to
see objects clearly under the surface. All the training in the
world cannot enable lifeguards to see what is impossible for them
2 Underwater video
and, better yet, computerized drowning detection systems are needed
to reveal what is below the surface. If these technologies cannot
be obtained, guards may be required to scan the bottom while in the
water wearing masks or goggles.
3 Guards must be
taught to respond immediately to any unusual shadows, smudges or
dark objects below the surface, without hesitation. When in doubt, fish it out.
4 The bottom of the
pool, not the surface, must be prioritized during visual scanning.
An unconscious victim on the bottom should have priority over a
struggling, still conscious victim on the surface. As Jill White in
her Star Guard program emphasizes, “Water quickly hides, then
suffocates.” Likewise, Ellis and Associates has been
performing “dummy drops” to test its guards since 2001.
And the YMCA mentions scanning from the bottom up. Unfortunately,
the majority of guards in this country are still trained to
prioritize the surface even though distressed swimmers and even
potential drownees on the surface have a timely advantage over
those already on the bottom, “running on empty.”
5With the growing
popularity of breath-holding competitions and underwater distance
swimming, many more deaths will occur needlessly unless we ban
prolonged breath-holding activities and teach lifeguards to pull
people up from the bottom regardless of the