For years, the argument against single-guard facilities has centered on the safety of the patrons. But two recent tragedies suggest that lifeguards also can be victims when they don’t have backup.
On Sept. 3, 17-year-old Rachael Anna Rosoff was found dead in a pool she was guarding at a subdivision in Raleigh, N.C. Investigators determined that a corroded pump wire sent an electric current through the water. It’s not clear why Rosoff was in the pool. According to news reports, she wasn’t discovered until a colleague arrived for his shift.
The next day, a 24-year-old female lifeguard was abducted and raped at gunpoint during her shift at a condominium complex in Alexandria, Va.
Both women were working alone, according to reports.
The incidents call into question the longstanding industry practice of assigning a single guard to a pool, which often occurs at facilities owned by homeowners associations.
Critics have long denounced the practice as unsafe, contending there are certain things that a lifeguard should not be expected to do alone, such as rescue multiple drowning victims at once, or respond to a spinal injury. Even extrication can be difficult to execute solo. And with no qualified supervising lifeguard on duty, what’s to prevent the guard from becoming distracted or disengaged?
While proponents acknowledge that single-guard facilities aren’t ideal, they maintain that one can be adequate given certain parameters, such as when a pool measures less than 2,000 square feet in surface area or when they can rely on nearby support personnel, such as groundskeepers or officer workers, to lend a hand during an emergency. Besides that, there is an economic reality that is hard to overcome: Many HOAs, which contract with pool management firms, simply will not hire more than one guard unless required by law.
What’s often not discussed in this debate, however, is the safety of the lifeguards themselves.
Now aquatics safety consultants have another compelling reason to sway HOAs toward hiring more guards: If they’re not willing to do it for the safety of their residents, then they should do it because they don’t want to jeopardize the lifeguard.
For years, Alison Osinski has been trying to get multifamily properties to understand the importance of having an adequately staffed pool, but her arguments often fall on deaf ears. In many states, lifeguards aren't required at semi-public pools.
“They think they’re doing something above and beyond by hiring them, but I’m saying do it right or don’t hire them at all,” said the owner of Aquatic Consulting Services in Avalon, Calif., on Santa Catalina Island.
Though tragic, the two September instances could signal a change. HOAs have responded appropriately after experiencing grim circumstances in the past. The case of the Virginia lifeguard who was sexually assaulted has echoes of a 2002 murder of a lifeguard in Leawood, Kan. Ali Kemp, a 19-year-old college freshman, was found strangled to death in a pool house pump room.
As a result, many HOAs in the region are very strict about having multiple guards on duty, said Jenna Stidham, director of aquatic operations at Midwest Pool Management in Independence, Mo. The firm manages a number of HOA pools, only one of which is a single-guard facility.
“We have contracts that are very strict about that,” Stidham said. “They’re dead set on having two lifeguards at all times and a male at closing.”
While one can make the case that having at least two guards on duty significantly reduces the likelihood of an assault, it’s difficult to say if having an additional guard would have prevented the electric shock drowning that occurred in North Carolina. That incident raises questions about whether lifeguards are being adequately trained to respond to an electric shock.
Aquatic safety experts believe this is a blindspot, one that needs to be addressed post haste. There have been at least two shock incidents at commercial pools this year – one fatal. Site-specific emergency action plans need to outline how to identify and turn off the breaker switch to the pool and how to resuscitate a shock victim.
For her part, Stidham says her firm’s training does go over what to do in the event of electric shock. She’s not confident other lifeguard companies are as vigilant.
“I think it’s something that isn’t pushed as much as it should be,” she said.
As for the likelihood of state laws being passed to mandate at least two lifeguards at all times, Osinski isn’t holding her breath. She says the powerful hotel/motel lobby would fight any such legislation tooth and nail on grounds that it would be a financial hardship.
That’s why some are calling for pool management firms to take the lead by refusing to hire out single guards in the wake of these incidents.
“It’s their responsibility to take a stance,” said John Fletemeyer, Ph.D., executive director of the Aquatic Law and Safety Institute based in Seattle and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
It’s a movement that’s already underway.
Michael Oostman, of Oostman Aquatic Safety Consulting in North Reading, Mass. said many of the nation’s prominent lifeguard firms are taking that position, including YMCA of the USA.
The YMCA manages many pools outside of its network of recreation centers, including facilities at homeowners associations.