There is no way to guarantee a child will be safe in an aquatic environment. However, there are ways to decrease the risks associated with visiting a pool.
As aquatics managers, we constantly teach our lifeguards how to respond when someone is in distress, but rarely do we look at what we can do to prevent the situation from occurring in the first place.
By using a nationally recognized life jacket program, my aquatics facility cut its number of water rescues drastically and, in turn, made the center a safer place.
Over the course of nine months (June 2009 to March 2010), our lifeguards entered the water 17 times. While making these rescues, the zones they were responsible for were left minimally supervised and, as a result, put patrons in those areas at risk. Our records indicate that the patrons who were rescued ranged from age 2 to 69, with the highest rescue percentage (76 percent) coming from children under the age of 7 years old.
To decrease these incidents, we adopted a modified version of the National Note & Float program. Developed at Penn State University by Dr. Tom Griffiths, the goal of Note & Float is to “first identify all nonswimmers who enter the facility, and then ‘float’ those swimmers with an appropriately sized USCG life jacket.” With the assistance of Dr. Griffiths, we were able to develop the following modified guidelines.
All non-swimmers under 48 inches tall must wear a USCG-approved Type III life jacket and remain within arm’s reach of a supervising adult when in water greater than 24 inches deep.
Swimmers under 48 inches tall have the option to pass a swim test to opt out of wearing a life jacket. The swim test includes a 25-yard swim (proficient front crawl with rhythmic breathing), jump into deep water, resurface, and tread water for 1 minute with head above water.
After careful consideration, the center chose to adopt the modified Note & Float program for aquatic birthday parties only. Birthday party attendees were chosen as our primary target audience not only because we host a lot of parties (nearly 700 since June 2009), but also due to the high drowning incident rates associated with special events.
Since the start of Note & Float, we’ve seen a significant drop in the number of water rescues at our facility (81 percent of water rescues came before the introduction of Note & Float). The program itself has been generally accepted by our patrons, but as expected, there has been some resistance from party participants.
Typically, situations arise when parties contain mostly swimmers over 48 inches tall (who do not need to wear a life jacket), but also have a few nonswimmers under 48 inches (who are required to wear life jackets). Parents of the smaller, and usually younger, children feel that we are excluding their children from the rest of the party by forcing those under 48 inches tall to wear life jackets and stay near a parent.
Through the controversy, though, an unexpected result has occurred: Not only has Note & Float made a positive impact on birthday parties, but it also has increased the popularity of life jackets among our members. More and more, we’ve seen a lot of parents bringing their children in life jackets (as opposed to water wings), or asking to borrow life jackets from our facility.
We can proudly say that by introducing this program to a select group of patrons, we've improved the overall acceptance of life jackets throughout the aquatics center.
Adopting a life jacket program is something we think all aquatics facilities should at least consider. Birthday party attendees were our target population, but focusing on any high-risk group would be a good idea.
Starting off small can make a big impact. As you can see from our experiences, introducing life jackets to a select group of patrons may produce positive results far beyond the small number of people you originally set out to reach.