Tim Bobko

Being in the same field for a lifetime can lend itself to complacency. We tend to take for granted many of the things that, at the beginning of our careers, seemed more urgent. This is a good and a bad thing. For example after 30+ years, I no longer stress about having confrontational conversations with unruly members. That’s a good thing. What can be a very bad thing is when we stop using “fresh eyes” to see potential safety hazards.

Every morning, I make my rounds around our aquatic center. After you’ve looked at the same pool, pool deck, ventilation system, etc., for 15 years, it’s very easy to miss things. It’s sort of like the classic video where a group of students is passing a ball around in a circle and the viewer is asked to count the number of times the students in white shirts touch the ball. What happens is that the viewer becomes so engrossed in counting, that they entirely miss the 6-foot gorilla that walks through the center of the circle, turns to the camera, pounds his chest and leaves. This is known as selective attention or inattentional blindness.

When this occurs, you may see the drain cover, but miss the fact that it has a crack. You may see that the lights are on in the pool area, but miss the fact that one is out and needs to be replaced because the corner is dark.

This can also happen with staff supervision. It would be reasonable to assume that when hiring lifeguards with a current certification, that they are able to perform all of the skills necessary for being a lifeguard. It would also be reasonable to assume that they are strong swimmers. I now know that many times, this is not true.

Recently we hired a new guard, "Jimmy." Very fit, in his 20s, Jimmy interviewed well and had recently recertified his American Red Cross LGT. He had great customer service skills, was dependable, and understood how to implement emergency action plans. A dream employee.

Not long after his first shift, he was required to attend his first in-service. The first portion of in-service that day was to swim a 300. All of the guards jumped in and started to plow through it. Except for Jimmy. He barely made it through his first 200, jumped out of the pool, ran out through the exit door and proceeded to vomit on the back landing. The supervisor running that in-service immediately attended to Jimmy, who said he hadn’t really eaten that morning before training, and pushed himself too hard. We sent him home and said he would be allowed to make up that in-service at another time.

So the next time came. Jimmy started the 300 at his same fervent pace, jumped out and proceeded to vomit on the back landing. Now there are a couple of issues here: First and foremost, Jimmy was taken off the roster and required to return with a medical clearance. We needed to be sure his health was not at risk. Once medically cleared, it was time for him to work on improving his endurance and skills before returning to the stand. Looking fit, and being “swim fit” are two different things.

Lessons Learned

  1. Always look at your facility with “fresh eyes.” If you feel that you might be missing things, ask another supervisor to help with making rounds.
  2. Never ASSUME that a new employee has the skills necessary to perform their duties. You must test them first. Start with their swimming skills, move next to rescue skills and CPR/rescue breathing, etc.
  3. Remember, if you are getting complacent, then there’s a chance that your employees might be doing the same thing. Train them on selective attention and how it can have devastating effects on the safety of your patrons.