Imagine the worst case scenario at an aquatics facility. If you’re like most professionals, that probably ends with a drowning death.
Now imagine it gets worse. Imagine that the drowning victim wasn’t found by your lifeguards in a reasonable amount of time. In fact, the victim wasn’t found until two days later! And the people who discovered it were a bunch of kids who had jumped the fence after hours, not anyone on your staff.
An investigation starts to show the reasons why: Your water was so cloudy you couldn’t see the bottom. Your facility wasn’t staffed properly. Your lifeguards’ training is questionable. And you’re out of a job. Quite possibly, more serious consequences await.
Unless you’ve been living under an aquatic rock lately (and because this happened at the height of the swim season, perhaps you have been), you know this is no imaginary story. This nightmare really happened in Fall River, Mass. Our news story gives all the latest details. Every professional needs to read it, study it, take it to heart.
Unfortunately, this tragedy is only the worst example of a disturbing trend I’ve noticed as I track drowning headlines from around the world. The trend is lifeguards not only failing to rescue the drowning victim, but also missing the victim until a swimmer happens upon the body. I counted at least a dozen such stories just in the past few weeks — which, not coincidentally, was at the height of the heat wave that gripped most of the nation in July. All of these incidents happened at public aquatics facilities, not open-water beaches.
Don’t get me wrong. I know the majority of lifeguards, managers and supervisors are doing their jobs, getting the necessary training and remaining vigilant. Most saves don’t make headlines; they’re just what people expect.
Lifeguards often are unsung heroes.
But the drowning at Fall River and the spate of related headlines sully the entire industry. Thanks to the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, what happens in Peoria doesn’t just stay in Peoria. The Fall River drowning made headlines around the world, mainly due to its gruesome nature. When people read such stories, they question the safety of facilities everywhere. They also wonder about the lifeguards they see at their facilities. Maybe their buddy was right — maybe we do pay those guards too much for just sitting in the sun.
Such an argument recently was used against Newport, Calif., beach lifeguards — some of the best-trained in the world. They lost 50 percent of their pensions and have to pay more than double what they were, just to keep them.
In a time of such budget uncertainty, the last thing we need is the public questioning the value of aquatics. At the same time, with budgets so tight, it’s harder than ever to ensure that guards are receiving the proper training, or that facilities are even staffed appropriately.
So it’s time to ask yourself: Could the nightmare that happened at Fall River happen at your facility? Are you doing all that you can to train your lifeguards and hone their skills? If you were ever under investigation for a tragedy, would you be able to defend your facility, your staff, yourself?
Then imagine trying to live with the consequences of not being sure of those answers until it’s too late.