With summer nearly over, the aquatics industry is on
track for a sad milestone: 2009 may be one of the deadliest
drowning years on record. Every day, it seems a new tragedy
Of course, lifeguards are preventing tragedies every
day, too. According to one statistic, well-trained,
vigilant guards save approximately 70,000 people every
year. There’s a word for such people —
But being a hero comes with a price. People expect more
from their heroes and like to think of them as infallible.
So a picture on the cover of The New York Post of a
lifeguard wearing headphones while on duty shocked and
angered many, especially because a drowning happened on the
same beach just days before. That guard has been suspended,
but the damage is done. National media is quoting concerned
parents and swimmers as saying they routinely see guards
chatting on cell phones or texting on duty.
The hero has fallen.
And now a high-profile drowning has happened at Kalahari
Resort in Sandusky, Ohio, which bills itself as the
nation’s largest waterpark. A 3-year-old boy was
found dead in a children’s lagoon pool.
The national media is lumping the tragedy with the image
of the guard wearing headphones.
Reports point out that Kalahari has been fined five
times for lifeguard shortage violations — more
than all of its local competitors combined. Parents who
lost a child to drowning while a single 16-year-old was on
guard are interviewed. One report asks the question:
“Are lifeguards keeping you safe?”
A provocative question, no doubt good for ratings, and
pandering to people’s fears. But it
doesn’t get to a deeper, more important question:
What is the value of life, and what are we as a society
willing to pay for it? When it comes to water safety, the
answer is somewhere around $9 an hour, less than most
fast-food workers make.
In past columns, I’ve come down hard on the
industry for not paying guards better. I stand by that
criticism. But it’s not only the industry at
fault. If the public is really concerned about water
safety, it needs to be willing to pay for it. In 2009, when
most facilities are barely getting by and many more are
shutting down for lack of funding, people not only seem
unwilling to pay for current levels of lifeguard staffing,
but also to be saying they want less.
At Kalahari, too, where adequate staffing appears to be
an issue, the question can be asked: How much more are
people willing to spend to enjoy the waterpark to help
Unfortunately, we may never know the answer because in
my experience, aquatics professionals have not been willing
to ask the question. Instead, they seem content to eke by
on the meager amounts the public provides, perhaps already
feeling guilty about how much they rely on subsidies to
But what would happen if, instead of arguing for
operational costs, the industry argued for life costs? What
would happen if bureaucrats had to face parents of drowning
victims when they were deciding staffing levels? What would
happen if private waterparks charged more, but explained
that the extra cost is all in the name of water safety and
ensuring well-trained, vigilant lifeguard staffs?
No amount of staffing — or money — can
prevent every drowning. But just making the effort to
support and value lifeguards and standing up for fair pay
is an act of heroism in itself.