In summer 2014, I started my first job as a full-time aquatics supervisor. I was given just over a month to become acquainted with everything at our indoor facility before our larger outdoor facility opened. The indoor pool (a YMCA/Boys & Girls Club) has a great reputation and we rarely have conflicts with patrons, but the outdoor facility (a municipal waterpark) is a different story. In the first couple of weeks, we received so many complaints, I knew we had to change something.

Lifeguarding is a job where most interactions with the public are reactionary. Someone breaks the rules or an emergency occurs, and you react. Many of the problems we experienced could’ve been avoided, so we needed to change the way the staff handled situations. After speaking with the guards and patrons, the two main concerns I had weren’t tied to anyone in particular. What I saw was that when guards moved to chairs where their job changed, they didn’t change with it. The two chairs where we saw the biggest issues were at the kiddie pools and at the slide towers.

As you can imagine, there isn’t much action in the kiddie pools. This area gets the fewest visitors, yet comprises a fairly large portion of the complaints. The most common thing heard from parents is that the lifeguards are scaring children by yelling and blowing whistles at them.

We noticed that some children were scared by the whistles, but others didn’t react at all. To a 3-year-old, the screech from a Fox 40 means nothing. By taking away the physical chair at this rotation, guards were forced to move around. It made them focus a little more on the pool action, gave them a better view of their coverage area, and encouraged them to walk up to anyone who was breaking the rules and talk to them instead of yelling.

At the slide tower, it was much the same. The guard stationed here checks the height of questionable children and tells them when it’s safe to go down the slides. Removing the chair forced guards to actively scan kids for height infractions and put them in a better position to watch the slides. This ultimately resulted in a significant drop in the number of assists and rescues that had to be made in the catch pool.

In the end, a small change to just two of our nine rotations significantly cut the accidents and complaints. Our guards stopped being reactive and started being proactive. Some lifeguards didn’t appreciate the changes, but a little retraining helped ease the transition. Patrons overall were happier and safer — and all we had to do was get out of the chair and listen.

The Lessons
1. Change tactics. If you get the same complaints every day, there has to come a time when you realize something could be done better. Whether it is a change to the facility or staff, you have to try something.
2. Listen to the people. Many times patrons are more aware of a facility's problems than the staff is. They offer a different perspective that we often don’t hear. If you find yourself responding with “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” it might be time for a change.
3. Be proactive. The best way to deal with problems is to prevent them from happening. Small changes can make a big impact.

Matthew Reed is the aquatics coordinator for the Boys and Girls Club and YMCA of Greater Waterville (Maine) at the Alfond Youth Center.