History is littered with examples of people mistaking collective wisdom for scientific fact. Probably the most notorious is the flat-earth theory. It took science and research to disprove that notion and show that, in fact, our world is quite the opposite of flat.
In many ways, lifeguarding is in a similar position. Though there are plenty of manuals, scanning techniques, guidelines and advice, precious few are based on any actual science — or studies involving lifeguards in real-world situations. Instead, they rely on collective wisdom, on-the-job observations and basic logic.
The result is a handful of agencies with sometimes-conflicting guidelines and practices that confuse operators and leave facilities more vulnerable to liability. As one high-level lifeguard official put it, today’s lifeguarding agencies rely more on marketing than science.
Meanwhile, basic questions plague lifeguards and their managers: How long should guards be on duty before they get a break? Which scanning technique is really most reliable? Is it more important for guards to be strong swimmers, or to demonstrate the ability to pull someone from the water?
All of these questions are crucial to lifesaving. But none of them yet have solid answers based on research or science. The closest we can come is science based on similar skills and demands required of lifeguards.
In this issue, we present some of that research in the feature “Guarding Against Misconceptions.” But the author, respected expert Frank Pia, recognizes that more is needed.
Why is research for something so basic to aquatics so lacking? Funding is a big part of it. But disagreements and bad blood between competing guard agencies also play a role.
Fortunately, there is movement to change that. The United States Lifesaving Association, American Red Cross and YMCA will meet this spring to begin creating a set of common lifeguarding guidelines. They’re trying to base those guidelines on science and research from other fields that’s applicable to lifeguarding.
This is a good start. But more must be done. Operators can do their part by asking questions about guard training and practices. Are they based on science? What research was used? What kind of track record do they have?
After all, we put a heavy burden on the shoulders of young lifeguards. We owe it to them and our patrons to ensure we’re providing the most sensible training and guidelines.
It took brave pioneers to debunk ideas such as the flat-world theory. It will take the same kind of bravery and fortitude to do so for lifeguarding. But just as the explorers discovered, challenging common wisdom can uncover new worlds of opportunity.