Lifeguarding has been a mainstay in the industry for decades, but the past 20 years have brought about some significant changes in the way these individuals do their job. Thanks to new research, training and a general shift toward professionalizing the industry, guards are better prepared to do their jobs than ever before.
Perhaps the most obvious change in lifeguarding has been the widespread introduction of new equipment. The rescue tube has changed the job in many ways, according to Jill White, co-founder, Starfish Aquatics Institute. In the past, guards needed to be able to make body-to-body contact and hold and tow victims in deep water, White says. This meant lifeguards risked potentially dangerous physical contact with victims and only the best swimmers with the greatest physical strength were qualified for the role.
?The rescue tube has reduced the risk of body-to-body contact with victims, and increased the number of potential lifeguard candidates by reducing the need for high-level swimming ability,? White says.
Today?s guards also are trained to use lifesaving equipment, including AEDs and oxygen. Prior to the late 1990s, these tools were generally reserved for emergency response personnel. Putting them in the hands of lifeguards has further enhanced guards? ability to save lives. Groups including the Divers Alert Network and the American Red Cross were among the first to offer training for lifeguards on this equipment, says Robert Ogoreuc, assistant professor in the Physical Education Department and aquatic director at Slippery Rock University.
But lifeguarding by its very nature is more about being proactive in protecting human lives, and the past two decades also have brought about new research, furthering the understanding of human ability to perform vigilant surveillance. Additionally, pool design has changed and rectangular pools have been replaced by new venues with multiple pools and features. As a result, several aquatics experts have developed and refined systematic scanning methods, and many operators now are developing site-specific training to instruct guards on the specific needs of their pools.
White agrees, observing, ?[Before], lifeguards were expected to watch the water, but there wasn?t any way to measure performance or determine if zones were too large. Jeff Ellis developed the 10/20 rule in the 1980s and now all of the national training agencies recognize the benefit of having some type of quantifying number to provide to lifeguards as a goal of how often a zone should be scanned, and how long it should take to get to the furthest part of that zone.?
Since the ?80s, other techniques have come online, including the Five Minute Scanning Strategy, developed by Tom Griffiths, director of the Aquatics and Safety Office for Athletics at Penn State University, State College, Pa., and founder of the Aquatics Safety Research Group. But regardless of the origin, one thing all of today?s scanning strategies seem to have in common is a more three-dimensional approach.
In the past, lifeguards were trained to watch the swimmers in the water. Now they?re trained to consistently scan the entire body of water in their area, including the swimmers on the surface and what?s happening on the bottom of the pool. The ?realization by many individuals and organizations that scanning the bottom first, instead of the surface was of paramount importance,? in changing the way guards watch the pool, Griffith notes.
Today, scanning has come one step further, via computer-aided drowning detection systems and underwater video monitoring. Though still in their infancy and controversial these systems have one benefit over human lifeguards: They will not succumb to factors such as fatigue or boredom.
As a result of the past 20 years of growth in lifeguarding, guard training is changing as well. In 2006 the American Red Cross announced updates to its training program and now almost all training is more proactive and scenario-based, White says.
Summing up the changes, Ogoreuc says, ?All of these [developments] have enhanced the primary function of lifeguarding.? And ultimately, more effective guards mean safer pools for everyone.