City of Phoenix Aquatics | Phoenix, Ariz.
City of Phoenix City of Phoenix Aquatics | Phoenix, Ariz.

Goals and challenges

Like other programs, the city of Phoenix Aquatics occasionally would test lifeguards by having fellow staff members randomly pose as drowning victims. Eventually, lifeguards caught on to the tests’ timing and could spot when evaluations would occur, removing the element of surprise.

How they did it

Management remedied the conundrum by implementing the Mystery Shopper Assessment program in 2012, mimicking programs typically used by retail outlets or market research companies. Anonymous shoppers enter the store and behave like other patrons. But their job is to make note of how the clerks interact with the customers, based on a pre-arranged set of criteria.

Phoenix Aquatics similarly removed the familiarity factor by having people unknown to the guards play the parts. "Victims" ranged in age from 15 to 26 and were trained to blend in with other typical pool patrons by, among other things, paying a fee to enter the facility.

Victims were not told when to begin staging their incidents. They merely walked into the pool area, behaved as any guest, and assumed the position of a drowning victim, floating facedown and motionless on the water’s surface, when they felt the time was right. Since there is no way to know how quickly a lifeguard will react, victims used inconspicuous, flexible plastic straws to breathe. The drill continued after victims were noticed by the lifeguard and retrieved.

From the moment a victim became "unconscious," lifeguards were evaluated for scanning and recognition; length of time until a lifeguard blew the whistle to initiate the emergency action plan; rescue technique; use of gloves, BVM and AED; proper and effective extraction using a back board; staff response; length of time between the whistle and first breath using a BVM; and communication between staff.

Unlike before, the majority of lifeguards failed the test, which was performed 36 times at 28 different pools. Only three out of 36 activated the EAP in 10 seconds or less. Seventy-five percent failed to recognize the victim in 30 seconds or less, and some lifeguards didn’t spot the victim within 75 seconds and had to be alerted by assessors to initiate the drill.

The delays seemed to be caused by hesitation and doubt, known as the "freezing" phenomenon. Many lifeguards who spotted the victims waited to make sure they weren’t playing a game or holding their breath. Some delayed action to seek reassurance from other lifeguards or swimmers.

Results of the Mystery Shopper Assessment alerted managers to the need for improvement in lifeguard training, procedures and audits. By upgrading its methods, the program has seen improved results each year. In 2013, 67 Mystery Shopper Assessments were conducted at 29 pools, and lifeguards blew their whistles activating the EAP on average 48 seconds. The average time from whistle to first breath was 58 seconds. By 2014, lifeguards averaged 22 seconds before blowing their whistles, and the average time from whistle to first breath dropped to 23 seconds. In many cases, recognition times improved by nearly 50 percent.

Coordinators acknowledge that once lifeguards become accustomed to this testing, methodologies once again will have to change. But it proves there is value in challenging the status quo and experimenting with various testing patterns to ensure that lifeguards stay at the top of their game.


  • The Mystery Shopper Assessment removed the "predictability factor" from lifeguard tests.
  • The program proved there was a need to amend lifeguard training, policies and procedures.
  • Lifeguard testing results improved every year after the initial Mystery Shopper Assessment was implemented.