I believe that drowning, in most circumstances, is a preventable tragedy. While other experts have made this statement, few have ever accomplished or proven it.
Thelma G. Spencer Park of Rochester Hills, Mich., has had a perfect safety record over the past 25 years. How many busy beaches hosting more than 200,000 guests annually have never had a fatality?
We accomplished this goal by doing things better or differently than many other guarded facilities. Here are 10 examples:
1 Supervision. To call for supervision of swimmers is one thing, but to have ?super vision? is quiteanother. The greatest reason guarded beaches or pools have drownings is that the staffs did not see either the surface struggle or the pre-event to drowning. So we focus on seeing more with more sets of eyes than other operations, and we use a tighter scanning zone.
This requires that we know more about what all drownings may look like. Not all people drown in the same body position, that is, the bathtub drowning or young nonswimmer who reaches water depth greater than their ability to stand. That person often presents to the lifeguard with rolling shoulders and wide eyes, but rarely with above-surface arm movements.
2 Site evaluation and hazard identification. Drownings are site-specific. Accidents are preventable if you understand the common scenario. Piers, rafts or floatables, drop-offs and areas adjacent to volleyball, frisbee or children?s playscapes are just a few active rescue locations. The best-run operations have detailed yearly studies of rescues and events that lead to them. Do that and you?ll start to understand the ?pre-event to drowning.?
3 Protocols. Rescue procedures must be put in place that provide for rapid evacuation of a swimmer from the water to a hard, dry surface. Get only the best equipment, then train on it constantly.
Our missing person protocol is like nobody else?s. It requires every person to get out of the water and line up on the beach. Then lifeguards go in immediately to the missing child?s height. In this way, we rule out a submersion in our designated swimming area in less than four minutes.
In addition, we don?t wait for moms to come to us we go to them as soon as there is an indication that they are looking for a child. I know of one child who owes his life to this procedure. A mom had lost sight of her 6-year-old boy, and one of guards noticed her looking for him. The guard initiated the procedure and within 45 seconds had him out of the water and started CPR. The boy recovered with no deficit.
4 Policies. We have lots of rules. And they are enforced by lifeguardssitting in the tower, by walking lifeguards, or by the supervisor on site with a face-to-face discussion of our policies. Our long-standing policies that prohibit alcohol and flotation devices have made Spencer Park a popular venue for moms with kids, camps and the non-party crowd.
5 Barriers. The fenced park helps control after-hours activities. The enclosure around the children?s playscape helps supervision for parents, but also keeps wandering children away from adjacent waters.
Finally swim lines and ropes are very important. The right depth for these lines is key, too. Four-foot-depth ropes to divide shallow from deep for younger swimmers is not nearly as effective as the3-foot rope. Simply put, at 4 feet of water depth, you end up with a lot of small nonswimmers heading out to touch or grab-onto a rope.
6 Encouraging the second set of eyes. This is a difficult task. While we know parents or caregivers often are inconsistent with their supervision, we must try some techniques. Here are a few that seem to work: We place our biggest sign on the main lifeguard tower: ?There is no substitute for adult supervision.?
We help camps set up the buddy system, which must be followed by all campers who use the lake. Our routinely run missing person drill usually gets the attention of parents and caregivers. It also often encourages them to actively watch and care for their children while they are in the park.
7 Safety talks. All organized groups that come into the park get a safety talk. The talk covers many items and safety concerns, including the environment, strangers, swimming rules, park rules, the buddy system, what a drowning buddy may look like and camp personnel responsibilities.
8 Training and goals. Our goal is the same each year: No drowning; no spinal chord injuries; no serious employee injuries. It is the very first sentence that comes out of my mouth at each training session.
We train hard without gimmicks. We use all our equipment routinely in training, which focuses on our rescue procedures, and we keep at it it until guards can do it in their sleep. Then once they think they have all possible situations covered, I throw something new at them. It is minimum three hours weekly for most of the summer. This does not include pre-employment training or the physical training and conditioning they are required to do daily.
I have read through more than 4,000 police-investigated drowning reports, complete with narratives stating what witnesses saw before, during and after the submersion. This kind of data makes for powerful training information and scenarios. The biggest reason why we, as a group of safety people, can?t do a better job in drowning prevention is due to lack of truly relevant research.
9 Leadership. Many facilities suffer from not having the right person over the long haul. Getting a new supervisor every other year may be the norm, but it is not good for the overall safety record that a committed, goal-oriented professional brings year in and year out. Yes, money is and will always be an issue. So if you find a person who wants to record year after year without a drowning, accept their faults and work with them.
10 Swim and Safety Class. If we all really want to get to less than 500 drownings a year, we must teach children how to swim and explain the hazards of the environment such as cold moving water, rip currents, low head dams, ice safety and many more situations that put fair swimmers in peril.
Our program costs only $50, or the fee charged for an annual pass. Not only does the family get to use the park year ?round, but they also can start their child with one of life?s most valuable and yet underappreciated skills swimming.