Photo by Michael Del Polito/American Red Cross © Stock photo taken for the American Red Cross
Photo by Michael Del Polito/American Red Cross © Stock photo taken for the American Red Cross

Sometimes the corrections you make in the course of everyday activities prevent an emergency. More often than not, you’ll never know – and that’s success in my book.

As operations manager for one of the largest waterparks in Texas, a large part of my job is ensuring the safety of guests and team members. Communication and good training are the cornerstones of any safety program, but it’s the testing that tells you whether your program works.

While Aquatica San Antonio regularly conducts its own evaluations, we also contract with the American Red Cross Aquatic Examiner Service to conduct assessments from a third-party perspective. Even though I know my facility from top to bottom, an outside partner may see things with a different point of view.

We do not know the exact time and day an aquatic examiner will arrive, which keeps the assessment realistic. For me, it’s about doing what we normally do to keep our guards and guests safe.

The examiner gets an advance pass to the facility and spends the day observing operations. The next day the examiner reviews his observations with me and my leadership team. Together we then assess our paperwork, operational safety procedures and rescue equipment.

Next we randomly assemble a group of guards who are put through scenario-based team skill evaluations. What I like about these evaluations is that they are conducted in an educational manner. The examiner sees each scenario as a teachable moment and works to educate the guards, not scare them. When I was a lifeguard, I remember going through a similar assessment. Was I nervous? Of course. But I was also excited to put my skills to the test. I try to convey that same mindset to our team members.

This summer, one of my team members expressed nervousness about taking the evaluation. I assured him that there was no failing. It’s about learning and improvement. If a guard skips a step or makes a mistake, he is mentored through it. The guard gets the chance to stop, walk though it and try it again.

Finally, the examiner conducts in-service training with our instructor team, basing this on the skills observations from the previous day. My front-line staff really appreciates this face-to-face time with the experts.

I use the Aquatic Examiner Service reports to plan future in-service trainings, ensuring that they are relevant. I also share lessons learned with operations managers throughout the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment systems. For example, we may suggest adding or removing a backboard to a rescue process to achieve a better safety result. We want all of our parks to operate as similarly as possible with the safety of our team members and guests as our highest priority. We don’t operate in a vacuum.

I enjoy the outside assessment process. It excites me to know that we will get a credible look at where our operations need improvement – and also where our 100+ lifeguard team is excelling. Aquatics is a complicated field, and ensuring water safety is everyone’s responsibility.

The Lessons

1. Embrace the assessment. Said another way, don’t be nervous. Don’t hesitate to conduct them – they will prove beneficial for your team.

2. Learn from it. Use the information that you receive to improve your procedures and processes. Or, strive to improve what you’re already doing well. The assessment should not impact you negatively if you use it for what it’s intended – as an educational tool.

3. Be consistent. Sure, you could do assessments only on an annual basis, but I don’t recommend it. New team members rotate in and out and there are always processes that are easy for some and more challenging for others. I recommend conducting assessments at regular intervals throughout the season or the year.

4. Recognize and reward. Every assessment acknowledges outstanding performers who take pride in knowing their job is well done. Also tip your hat to their instructors, who play a big part in ensuring that your lifeguards know what to do. Recognition also reminds us about why we’re here – to keep people safe while they’re having fun.

Joshua Aldama is operations manager at Aquatica San Antonio, part of SeaWorld’s waterparks. A certified lifeguard, lifeguard instructor, and Instructor Trainer, he is also a faculty member of the Red Cross Instructor Trainer Academy.