What does the average person think of when they show up at their local pool or waterfront and see floating obstacle courses, log rolling, climbing walls and stationary bicycles in the water? Fun!
But what should you think about? Aquatics facilities are under continual pressure to appeal to as many guests as possible. As a result, we’re seeing an increase in the use of pools and natural bodies of water for unconventional water play and modified sports, fitness and adventure activities.
Modifications to operating and emergency procedures are needed to mitigate risks that may come with these activities. While anything that gets more people in the water is good, responsible operation by pool managers and lifeguards, and responsible use by patrons, is critical for safety.
Conditions and practices vary by site, so it is impossible to offer specific advice for all circumstances. But a systems-based approach using overall objectives can help determine exactly what you need to do when adding a new attraction, program or piece of equipment. Remember, there is an inherent drowning risk anytime water is involved, so no activity can ever be “safe” — your efforts can only make it “safer.”
A starting point
When adding a new attraction or activity, start by thoroughly researching local swimming pool regulations and codes, such as fire and electrical, to be sure the attraction is allowed and will be compliant.
Next, obtain and read all safety and operations guidelines provided by the manufacturer or program supplier. Common sources include debrief during the installation, product/program manuals, vendor website and consultants familiar with the attraction or activity.
Identify risks and challenges
To understand how to make an activity safer, first ask yourself and your staff several questions to determine what might go wrong. Don’t get carried away with every what-if scenario, but look for risks that are reasonably foreseeable. For example, if you have an inflatable challenge obstacle course, it is likely that users may experience peer pressure to engage in unsafe behavior. If you introduce log rolling or wall climbing, it is likely that users will fall off.
Go through the foreseeability exercise in each of the following areas:
Risk of injury, increased risk of drowning:
• Is there a chance of entrapment of a body, body part or extension, such as hair, jewelry or clothing?
• Is there a risk of falling?
• Is there a risk of collision with other users, the bottom or side of a structure?
• Is there a risk of injury during set-up or take-down?
• Will users likely attempt to use the equipment in an unintended way? Does the activity create competition or peer pressure such as daring others to swim underneath the structure, go faster, higher or outside their skill level?
• Will unattended children or unqualified individuals be able to gain access?
• Does an activity hold potential for deadly training exercises like repeated, prolonged breath holding?
• Does the equipment or activity block the view of the lifeguard stationed in the usual zone and station?
• Does the equipment prevent a three-dimensional view — including the surface, mid-level and bottom? There may be blind spots during use, or the equipment may block the view of other activities in the pool.
• Can equipment or structures deflate, crack, fall apart or come untethered?
Rescue and emergency response:
• Does the equipment or activity prevent extrication using normal means or access points? For example, floating fitness mats may make it difficult to rescue or extricate a person from that area.
• Does it increase response time?
• Does it require any additional rescue equipment?
• Does the equipment or activity reduce deck or shore space available for emergency care? Equipment may take up normally open space, or attract crowds that affect normal movement patterns.
Now that you know what is foreseeable, you can work on specific policies and operational practices to reduce the risk. However, that task can be daunting without a system to follow.
Bottom line: As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to guarding an unconventional aquatics activity. Common sense, combined with a risk assessment specific to your circumstances, will allow you and your guests to be able to responsibly use and enjoy these innovative and fun activities.