On many ocean beaches, and a few freshwater beaches, a special event or summer holiday is responsible for attracting enormous crowds of mostly inexperienced swimmers.
At such times, acceptable bather/guard ratios are significantly surpassed and,consequently, the safety of the beach — and its lifeguards — are seriously compromised.
Three other factors contribute to the problem. First is the fact that lifeguards often are shipped in from other areas to help deal with the crowds. These guards sometimes receive little or no localized training. This runs counter to established protocols such as United States Lifesaving Association standards, which state that lifeguards must be trained in the location where they will work.
Secondly, because guards are overtaxed during these special events, they have little or no time to take breaks. Providing brief rest periods is key to maintaining vigilance, according to numerous studies. The American Red Cross recommends giving guards breaks at least once an hour; USLA encourages a 15-minute break every hour for guards on continuous watch.
The third factor is alcohol consumption, which is frequently permitted — and even encouraged — at such events. Statistics reveal that 50 percent or more of all water accidents are alcohol-related, according to the USLA manual.
It is unfair, unprofessional and unethical to require lifeguards to work on beaches where their supervisors, risk managers and politicians allow such conditions to persist. Based on my experience, it seems reasonable to predict that one day a horrible tragedy will occur, costing the lives of many bathers if appropriate measures are not taken.
During my 30-year aquatics career, I’ve observed many cases of “crowd” lifeguarding throughout the nation, and therefore feel qualified to address this problem. The following points represent some recommendations I believe should be considered for any event that will significantly exceed accepted guard/bather ratios.
• Establish a reasonable bather/lifeguard ratio and require strict adherence to it. If the appropriate ratio cannot be achieved, then insist on canceling the event. At some beach events, it’s not uncommon to have ratios as high as 1 to 2,000. Ratios should never be that high. Safe ratios would be closer to 1 to 500.
• Through active police enforcement and public education, prohibit the drinking of alcohol.
• Provide guards with an acceptable working environment, such as adequate lifeguard towers,barriers to maintain a path to the water, the opportunity to take periodic breaks and readily available toilet facilities.
• Implement a minimum 40- hour, in-service training program for inexperienced and outsourced lifeguards about patron profiling, victim identification, crowd control and procedures in dealing with lost children.
• Develop a profiling method to address the challenges of “crowd” lifeguarding.
In regard to victim identification, the 10/20 method first developed by Ellis and Associates or any of the other surveillance methods don’t work well when dealing with many thousands of bathers.