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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Aquatics International welcomes feedback from readers. All correspondence
may be edited for clarity and space considerations. Please include
your complete name and contact information.Letters may be sent by mail to Aquatics
International, Attn: Editor, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 600, Los
Angeles, CA 90048; by fax to 323.801.4986; or via e-mail to
Credit: Gary Thill