Recently we conducted a study of nine public pools in North Carolina. It reveals where managers need to focus on accidents, rescues and overall safety in their in-service training.

In the area of accidents, 74 percent of the guards perceive horseplay as the most frequent cause. But accident report data shows the five most frequent causes, representing 86 percent of the total number of accidents, as walking, horseplay, playing, swimming and climbing pool steps. With the exception of horseplay, lifeguards did not identify any of the other four causes.

As for rescues, once again, lifeguards perceive horseplay as the most frequent cause. Rescue reports, however, indicate that the three most frequent causes are swimmers moving into water that’s too deep, jumping into overly deep water, and using the slide; these three scenarios account for 93 percent of all reported causes. Lifeguards did not identify these three causes, though it should be noted that overestimating ability may or may not include moving or jumping into too-deep water.

Another objective of the study was to identify what lifeguards perceive as obstacles to making rescues, and challenges to maintaining vigilant surveillance. When asked, “Does anything limit your ability to make rescues?” the five obstacles identified turn out to be:

  • Going too long without a break
  • Only one lifeguard at the pool
  • People talking to guard on duty
  • Safety rope
  • The way the lifeguard stand is situated

Lifeguards also were asked to identify challenges to maintaining surveillance of swimmers. The three most frequently identified challenges are:

  • Heat (too long without a break)
  • People talking to guard while on duty
  • Boredom (few people at the pool)

Additional challenges identified include sun in eyes, making sure members wear identification bands, lack of member respect, worries about upper management rules, large number of swimmers, people acting stupid, and jumping off unstaffed lifeguard stands. The final purpose of this study was to identify perceptions of in-service training and staff meetings. At all nine pools, a monthly skills test required lifeguards to demonstrate their skills relevant to:

  • active drowning
  • surface passive drowning
  • submerged passive drowning
  • obstructed airway
  • adult/child/infant CPR
  • surface spinal injuries
  • submerged spinal injuries.

Only 13 percent of participants view skills as “not valuable,” while another 13 percent see it as having at least some value, and 74 percent consider it very or extremely valuable. Regarding  the weekly staff, the guards were asked to rank their value relevant to 10 topics. Those topics were ranked in order, that is, from most (1) to least (10) valuable:

1. Work schedule

2. Change in rules

.Pool activities

4. Bather complaints

5. Pool cleaning

6. Rule enforcement

7. Recent accidents

8. Surveillance techniques

9. Recent rescues

10. Water testing

While No’s. 1 to 9 are all viewed as very or extremely important by more than half the lifeguards, the 10th topic, water testing, is considered not valuable by nearly one-third. It also should be noted that the four topics ranked lowest relate to safety, that is, recent accidents, rescues, surveillance techniques and water testing.

This is worrisome because providing a safe swimming environment is of paramount concern for pool managers. It also suggests managers may need to focus their in-service training on making lifeguards understand the importance of these topics.