It’s every aquatics facility's worst nightmare — a child facedown and motionless in the water. In this case, it happened at the wave pool at Splash! at Lively Park in Springfield, Ore. Operators immediately turned off the wave generator, and a lifeguard performed CPR while someone dialed 911. The 12-year-old boy was breathing when paramedics rushed him to a nearby medical center.
The March 29 incident made headlines, and follow-up reports delivered the sad news that the child died over the weekend from unknown causes. The boy reportedly had a history of cardiac problems and seizures. But this much was clear: He didn’t drown.
The lifeguards couldn’t have done anything more.
However, the whole facility soon faced a new obstacle: handling the trauma after a death. While operators focus on thoroughly training guards for crisis moments, many neglect to prepare them for the aftermath — which is exactly when the guard staff and facility are at their most vulnerable.
“I tell people all the time, sometimes in the wake of a crisis, you will be judged more on how you handled the crisis than the crisis itself,” says David Mandt, vice president of communications for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Alexandria, Va.
Blame is often placed on the facility, and lawsuits soon follow. Handled improperly, a drowning or similar tragedy can be costly to the well-being of guards as well as the financial stability of a facility, warn experts. Here’s how aquatics managers can prepare beforehand to minimize the damage from a traumatic event.
Ahead of a tragedy
After a crisis, several stressful situations occur, including a police inquiry, insurance investigation and media frenzy. The community is asking questions, the victim’s family wants answers and, meanwhile, the staff is slipping into shock and depression.
The best way to handle this type of post-crisis atmosphere is to prepare for it well in advance with an emergency action plan.
The first step is putting together a crisis kit (see "Anatomy of a post-crisis emergency action plan" at left). It should be labeled and stored somewhere that’s easily accessible.
Next, decide on one person to speak for the facility in the event of a crisis. Experts differ on whether this should be an employee, trained attorney or media consultant, but all agree that he or she will play a crucial role.
The spokesperson should be credible, articulate, comfortable in front of cameras and know the organization well. If they are part of the facility, they must be able to work within the confines of prescribed comments developed by the agency crisis team and legal staff.
This spokesperson should be prepared for the job well in advance and, if possible, obtain training with a media expert, Mandt says. The training provides valuable insight on handling the press and gives the spokesperson a chance to get on camera for mock interviews following a hypothetical crisis.
“The first time somebody turns television camera lights on in your face, you don’t want that to be when you’re dealing with a crisis,” Mandt says. “You want to know what that feels like before the time comes, so your brain can focus on the messaging.”
Others believe that, after a crisis, only an attorney should speak on behalf of a facility. These experts point out that an employee would be considered a corporate representative, and whatever he or she said to the media would be admissible in court. “I can’t tell you the number of cases where, by the time they get to me, someone has said something in the media that makes my job a lot harder,” explains Gregory Anderson, founder of AndersonGlenn, LLP, a Florida law firm whose clients include USA Swimming. In the wake of a catastrophe, he prefers public statements to be handled by himself, a media consultant or other professional who has plenty of experience working with the press and understands how information can play out in court.
The first 30 minutes
As soon as a crisis occurs, close the facility and go through the checklist in the crisis kit to ensure all steps are followed accordingly.
One of the most important actions is to gather information, says Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., president of the Aquatic Safety Research Group, a consulting firm in State College, Pa. The fact gathering should be done almost immediately — the longer the wait, the less accurate the information. “Get everybody in the room and recount in writing what took place, without taking responsibility or finger pointing. Just state the facts,” Griffiths says. The information should be dated and signed.
Lifeguards, other employees and witnesses may be extremely upset, but that should not influence the investigation, so try to avoid putting down material that is emotion-based. Instead, keep to the facts: who, what, why, when and where. “The pure fact of what somebody heard, saw, felt, smelled, touched — [what engaged] their five senses — that needs to go in the report,” Anderson says. “Conclusions or opinions have no place.”
As with the spokesperson, experts say that advance role-playing can be helpful with this step. After practicing a rescue, lifeguards should be questioned as if the police or investigator were there. They should be trained to tell the truth, offering no speculations, says Ron Gilbert, attorney and chairman of the Foundation for Aquatic Injury Prevention in Linden, Mich.
In addition, part of the EAP should include designating a staff member to quickly identify non-employee witnesses. “Get a name and phone number, if nothing else,” says Kevin Hoffman, director of member services at the Park District Risk Management Agency in Lisle, Ill. “They can provide some future verification of what occurred.”
After the emergency is over and the incident has been documented, managers need to assess their staff’s mental state. This means gathering the guards to discuss their concerns.
One of the biggest mistakes is not allowing the lifeguards to talk with others, says Jill White, founder of Starfish Aquatics Institute in Savannah, Ga. She once dealt with a post-drowning incident in which managers were so afraid, they forbade guards to discuss it with anyone. “They had been told, ‘You’re not to talk to the press. You’re not to talk to each other. You’re not to talk to your parents,’” she recalls. “These guards were trying to deal with this by themselves for weeks on end. It was a real disservice to the staff.”
White says they should be allowed, even encouraged, to talk with parents or close friends. Yet while giving guards the option to discuss the incident informally helps them deal with it, this doesn’t take the place of time with a trained professional.
“You need to have an adequate counselor come talk to them and make sure they don’t self-destruct,” Gilbert says. He recommends having someone on hand within 30 minutes after the incident.
Those directly involved may be invited to take a week off from work to recover. This should not be regarded as punishment. “Some people take longer than others,” White says. “There are some who never lifeguard again. They quit because they just can’t deal with it. Other individuals really like getting back into a routine.” The ultimate plan should be decided with the help of a skilled manager and outside counseling.
Beat the press
While managers and family members may give guards solace, the media often will not. Not long after a crisis, cameras flock to the scene, trying to get a shot of EMTs leading a stretcher to the ambulance. They’ll also attempt to interview witnesses, distraught family members and staff. This is one of the most delicate times of a post-crisis.
“What you do in the first 24- to 48 hours will often determine the outcome,” Hoffman says. “If your reputation is tarnished in the course of bad reporting, that’s very difficult to turn around.”
Here’s where having the designated spokesperson becomes so important. Everyone contacted should direct the media to that individual. “They should not say, ‘No comment,’” White explains. “They should frame [the answer] like, ‘I’m not the one who can provide you with this information, but here’s the name and contact information of someone who can.’” Anything else, including “no comment,” may make the facility look guilty or insensitive.
In deferring to the chosen spokesperson, the staff members should convey that they are trying to be helpful. “The inference is, ‘We’d love to help you, but I’m not the right person,’” Mandt says. “It sets the conversation in a much more positive light than saying ‘I’ve been instructed not to talk to the press.’”
Even that small message should be scripted, distributed as part of training and practiced occasionally.
“At any time, you could walk up to an employee in your waterpark and say to them, ‘I’m a reporter. What would you tell me to do if I asked you a question about something?’ Then they should be able to give you that guidance,” Mandt says.
After gathering information, a prepared statement should be issued to the community. Experts disagree on how much time should pass before this statement is given. You want to have enough information to move forward confidently, however Hoffman warns that waiting too long can invite trouble. “If you don’t give the media something, they’ll speculate or start to talk to anybody,” he says.
“They’ll look for the weakest link in your system or highlight the suffering. They’ll just deal with the horrific nature of the tragedy to sell the story.”
Mandt takes it even further. “In the days of social media, you need to make a statement within 30 minutes,” he says. “If you don’t, someone else will. It’s very important that early on in a crisis, you establish that you’re on top of the situation and that you will communicate information as you have it.”
The statement should only contain the information that is known to be absolutely true. Don’t include anything that’s still being investigated. “Your first statement could say, ‘We have a report that XYZ has occurred.We have engaged the assistance of local authorities and we will provide updates as time goes on,” Mandt says. “You share that with the press and in your social media channels. What that does is tell the press, your followers, and your guests that you are on top of it: You know something has gone on, you’re doing everything you can to take care of it, and you’re going to communicate about it.” As information develops, this likely will need to be followed up with additional messages.
Hoffman also suggests extending the agency’s deepest sympathies to those persons involved and their families. He and other experts say that expressing sorrow or sympathy can be done without admitting fault. A strictly factual statement with no feeling can come across as insensitive.
In timing and wording statements, the ultimate goal is to generate as little media attention as possible. “When it comes to developing statements, there’s kind of a mantra that we use, which is, ‘Tell what happened, tell it fast and tell the truth,’” Mandt says. “When an incident occurs, the best thing that can happen from a communications standpoint is you have only one story about it.”
While this likely won’t be possible if a tragedy should occur, that goal is probably more realistic with situations such as chemical problems or mechanical failures.
There are two final, important things to keep in mind while crafting statements: Get the okay from your attorney, and try to coordinate with what local authorities are saying.
During this time it’s critical to have dedicated staff monitoring all forms of electronic communication. “[Today] there are so many different communication channels where people can instantly get their news,” Hoffman says. “And they can comment on the stories, creating even more negative or incorrect information to manage.”
For example, when news broke about the boy in Springfield, Ore., at least one media outlet incorrectly reported that he had drowned.
Mike Moskovitz isn’t one to let mistakes go uncorrected. He saw the error on an NBC affiliate’s website and immediately contacted the news channel. “Fortunately, I caught it before it went on the air,” says Moskovitz, public affairs manager for Willamalane Park and Recreation District, which operates the aquatics facility where the March 29 incident occurred.
To stop the potential spread of misinformation, Moskovitz contacted all local media outlets, advising them not to jump to conclusions. He explained that the boy, who was accompanied by a nurse that day, had a history of cardiac problems and seizures, and that he was breathing when he was pulled from the pool. Following headlines made it clear that the boy’s death wasn’t conclusive.
Several days later, police officials stated to the media that the boy died of a medical condition and that aquatics personnel did everything they could to save him.
In addition to monitoring the news outlets, Hoffman suggests accommodating the reporters so that they can do their jobs correctly. Finding a place for them to set up, providing logistical support, water and access to restrooms can make their jobs, and yours, easier. “The more comfortable you make folks, the better shake they’ll give you,” he says.
Maintaining a positive relationship with the local media in general also will help a facility through a tragedy. In some cases, a reporter who respects the facility will go back and set an incorrectly reported story straight.
Any drowning is terrible, but when the tragedy occurs in a guarded facility it can cause even more pain, guilt and undesirable repercussions. The way the incident is handled afterwards can make all the difference.
Rebecca Robledo, Nate Traylor and Rin-rin Yu contributed to this story.