Keith Bibb is the aquatics/recreation specialist for the City of Sherman Parks and Recreation Department in Sherman, Texas. He has dedicated more than 22 years as a volunteer American Red Cross instructor and has served as a firefighter/paramedic for 20 years.
A mother hurries past me, her 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son in tow. They walk quickly and point excitedly at the drop slide and diving board located in the deep end of the pool. Why do I think this is a bad idea? I follow at a distance to observe as the events unfold.
The lifeguard has not noticed me and is intently watching the 6-year-old as he makes his way up on the diving board. His slow walk out to the edge of the board appears hesitant and unsteady, like that of a person teetering on the ledge of a high building. Mother and daughter are both standing at the edge of the pool near the exit ladder. With his mother coaxing him to jump, the 6-year-old turns to the side of the diving board and jumps to the side of the pool. He comes to the surface where he begins to dog paddle. It takes him about 10 seconds to travel 6 feet in getting to the side. He excitedly exits the water with his mother’s assistance and hurriedly walks back to the diving board. The lifeguard on duty fails to stop this activity and I intervene by calling the mother, son and daughter over to advise them of the reasons that they cannot be in the deep end.
Many parents place their children in harm’s way without an understanding of the safety issues and considerations. Even when lifeguards are on duty poolside, parents need to be clear that they, too, are culpable when it comes to the safety of their children. Aquatic managers and lifeguard staff should encourage guardians or parents to familiarize themselves with the policies that are posted at their aquatic facility, and then pass that information on to their children. This can circumvent many problems before they can occur.
There are clues and signals that lifeguards can identify in patron behavior which can indicate when potential life-threatening incidents will occur. Listed below are a number of red flag indicators and suggestions that can prevent lifeguards from the need to activate a facility’s emergency action plan. These measures are not all inclusive but are intended to illustrate how emergency incidents can be averted. Place yellow waterproof wrist bands on any patron that wears a life jacket.
Administer swim tests for young children who wish to enter the deep end of the pool with an off-duty lifeguard at their side during the test.
Remove children from diving or slide structures if they appear hesitant or nervous, and/or are being coaxed by others to enter the water.
Remove children from diving structures when they prepare to enter the water from the side of the diving board and also from deck side. (This indicates the child has little or no confidence in their swimming ability).
Finally and most importantly:
Remove children from deep water who exclusively use the dog paddle stroke.
The dog paddle is an unsafe and minimally effective stroke that fits all the criteria seen in the hydrodynamic principles of a distressed swimmer. Dog paddlers do not extend or reach completely out with their arms and legs resulting in short rapid movements. Also, a dog paddler’s head is raised upward; causing the torso and legs to angle downward in a diagonal position under the surface of the water which creates slow, labored forward locomotion.
One can only conclude with these observations that the dog paddle stroke is indeed a distressed swimmer and it will only be a matter of time before that distressed swimmer uses up all their energy to become an active drowning victim. Unfortunately, many parents are under the misguided perception that their child is a proficient swimmer when they see them use this stroke. Only through communication and education with the public can we change this misnomer. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that “participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children between the ages of 1- to 4.” Prompting parents to enroll their children in a quality learn-to-swim program is an ideal way to educate children and their parents in aquatic safety.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility for all aquatic staff members to promote and educate the public in aquatic safety. And though there are a number of ways to implement and promote such a program, lifeguard training is a system that requires the continual implementation of updates, evaluation and review. When it comes to public safety there is truly no room for complacency.