In the development of the Model Aquatic Health Code, one of the more challenging technical committees has been the group tackling lifeguarding/bather supervision.

The scope of work includes:

  • lifeguard qualifications and training
  • staffing of lifeguards and attendants
  • provision of lifeguard equipment and placement requirements
  • safety training (CPR, AED, etc.)
  • first aid equipment and facilities
  • and guidance for unguarded facilities.

That would be a very comprehensive list of standards if it were being developed for a specific facility. Instead, this list must provide the standards for single-pool establishments, multiple-pool facilities, waterparks, multiple-use facilities, public venues, private facilities, those facilities with a single guard, multiple guards and attendants as well as the unguarded facility. In addition to addressing the complexity of the venues and staffing, the standards of the code need to be evidence-based as much as possible. So we’re asking the following questions:

  • How many of the practices in the field of aquatics and lifeguarding are based on traditions or “because they work” vs. those that are best practices founded on true evidence?
  • What is the basis for deciding the appropriate length of a valid certification?
  • What are the true skills that a lifeguard needs to know and be able to perform so he or she can properly provide for the safety of the client?
  • What impact does the depth of water and type of facility have on those true skills?
  • How are those decisions made and on what protocol are they based?

As the committee approaches the specifics of lifeguard qualifications and training, a challenge has been to determine if it is performance-based or prescriptive. Again, how can a code be developed and written that will provide the highest standards of training for lifeguards that will ensure their ability to perform the job in that specific venue so the safety of the swimmers is maintained? The choice of words is critical. To suggest something be done is not appropriate for code language, yet to be absolute in detail is too defining. Therefore, the code language also becomes a challenge. For example, though it seems relatively simple and easy to describe the location or station of a lifeguard in terms of equipment (a chair), multiple factors will influence the answer that would appear in the code.

The members of this committee bring a breadth of knowledge, expertise and experience to the discussion. With representation from city, county and state agencies, universities, consulting services and national training organizations/agencies, the depth of the conversation on any topic can be extreme. All the potential code content is thoroughly examined through the perspective of its application to all aquatic venues — pools and waterparks, guarded and unguarded, large and small, public and private.

Relevance is questioned, justification for a given practice is expected and potential research topics to support nonevidence-based practices are being identified. There might not be final agreement on all points, but this committee aims to achieve the mission of MAHC, which is to create a code that is “user-friendly, knowledge-based and scientifically supported in an effort to reduce risk and promote healthy recreational water experiences.”

Currently, with all the states and so many of the local departments having different codes, the possibility of having a single, national document that will provide uniformity in standards and expectations for aquatics facilities and lifeguards is something all in the field should want and embrace. The safety of the public is of primary concern, and with national standards for training and supervision of those entrusted with that responsibility, the risk to the patrons can be reduced.

As with all other committees, once our work is completed, it will be posted for public comment on the MAHC Web site. Anyone with an interest in lifeguarding is encouraged to review and comment on these proposed code sections.

It is only when the voices of many are heard that the standards of the final code will achieve the goals of the