Too quick to blow the whistle? Train your lifeguard to have confidence to curb unnecessary alarms.
Tim Bobko Too quick to blow the whistle? Train your lifeguard to have confidence to curb unnecessary alarms.

I oversee all the municipal pools in Scottsdale, Ariz., and McDowell Mountain Ranch Aquatic Center is our newest facility. Opened in 2007, the pool is more of a waterpark than anything else. Not only does it have a lap pool and dive well, but also a leisure pool, splashpad, winding lazy river and inner tube water slide.

Many of these features were new to Scottsdale Aquatics when McDowell Mountain Ranch opened, so there was a steep learning curve about how to operate such a large facility. In the summer we have a total of 80 staff members — 72 lifeguards and eight assistant pool managers. In the early days, our 32 guard rotation was quite a challenge. Over the years, the learning curve has leveled off a bit, and our new 18 guard rotation is much more efficient.

However, certain training aspects are always a challenge.

One challenge experienced at McDowell Mountain Ranch on a regular basis was the issue of the staff being scared to use proper judgment in certain situations and defaulting to a “rescue” scenario every time there was an issue.

This was a real problem in the slide catch pool. In the past, any time someone came out of the catch pool and said, “My head” or “I hit my head,” the lifeguard immediately blew their whistle, activating the emergency action plan (EAP) and prompting all the pools (competition, dive well, beach entry pool and lazy river) within the facility to be evacuated. This happened at least once a day in the summer between 1 and 6 p.m. Evacuating all the other bodies of water required a lot of time and resulted in upset lap swimmers, kids and parents. For any suspected spinal injuries, our staff used the backboard to remove the victim from the water. That also meant EMS had to be called to evaluate the victim for transport. Rarely would the victim need to be transported, and the frustration from EMS and guests prompted us to take action to reduce these situations.

In fall 2013, we began working with guards to not only practice skills during an in-service, but also to practice critical thinking in various emergency situations. Because lifeguarding tends to be anything but black and white, it was hard to train our staff to understand that they can make decisions when the areas seem gray.

It required us managers to come up with new scenarios and change how they were conveyed. We changed the way lifeguards were trained to handle standing takedown rescues, as well as spinal rescues in general. Through experience-based learning, the staff was trained to do a secondary assessment to thoroughly understand an injury’s severity before involving the backboard or backup rescuers. Over the past two years, through continued training and increased self-awareness in skills, guards now are able to assess situations on a case-by-case basis with each person who comes into the catch pool complaining of a head injury. Through lifeguard/first aid skills and good judgment, lifeguards now make the call on whether to activate the EAP as opposed to just going through the motions.

The Lessons

1. Train confidence. Often lifeguards are so afraid to make a mistake that they don’t have the confidence to evaluate non-life-threatening emergencies as anything but. By helping our guards understand that they could use their first aid skills to evaluate a scenario, they gained confidence.

2. Never stop learning. You will never fully know your facility inside and out. Analyze and document why a rescue happened. Keep using this information from rescues to improve your operations, even if they are small changes.

3. Build your EMS relationships. We’ve worked closely with our first responders to practice together and ask questions of each other during trainings. That way, we better understand what to expect from each other in an emergency.

Courtney Clay has been working for the city of Scottsdale, Ariz., since 2007. She is the aquatics supervisor for their four aquatics centers, which have won multiple local awards as well as two AI awards for Best of Aquatics. She's been working in aquatics since 1999.