Drownings in Pools with Lifeguards on Duty: Why Submerged Victims Go Unnoticed

By Bella, Maria | Parks & Recreation, February 2019 | Go to article overview

Drownings in Pools with Lifeguards on Duty: Why Submerged Victims Go Unnoticed


Bella, Maria, Parks & Recreation


Doctors Julie Gilchrist and Andrew R. Pelletier, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), identified 140 drowning deaths from 2000 to 2008 in swimming pools where lifeguards were on duty. They drew their data from media accounts and, because the media doesn't report all drownings, concluded that the actual number of deaths was higher. Furthermore, a sole focus on death by drowning does not capture the entirety of the public health burden of submersion injuries. Among children under 15 years old, it is estimated that for every death there are an additional four incidents: two nonfatal submersion victims treated and released from emergency departments and two more who require hospitalization.

The aquatics industry has long pondered the cause of lifeguards failing to identify patrons in need of being rescued. Training programs focus extensive effort on teaching would-be lifeguards what to look for when scanning the pool for active and passive drowning victims. Some people hypothesize that life-guarding is an impossible task, while others argue that lifeguards who fail to recognize drowning victims are simply derelict in their duties.

But, what if lifeguards are being unintentionally set up to fail? A multiyear scientific study, initially developed to assist facility management in selecting and locating new lifeguard stands, found that, oftentimes, lifeguards are simply being positioned where they cannot identify drowning victims at the surface or on the bottom of the pool, even under ideal conditions.

How can this be, given that many lifeguard training agencies require surveillance zones to be validated using manikins and/or silhouettes? It turns out that when life-like devices are used, even when patrons are instructed to ignore the submerged "doll," those patrons change their activity and behavior in the pool. This substantially alters key environmental conditions, such as turbulence and line-of-sight obstructions, that contribute to the challenges lifeguards face while scanning under real-world conditions.

Some facilities that do not want to risk frightening or offending patrons by submerging life-like devices perform testing after-hours, with a dozen lifeguards attempting to replicate the turbulence and obstructions created by hundreds of patrons. Other facilities forego simulating turbulence and line-of-sight obstructions altogether and submerge manikins or silhouettes in quiescent pools. These approaches skew testing results and often cause lifeguards to be assigned zones that are too large, or to be positioned in stands that are too low to allow adequate visibility when scanning.

In addition to turbulence and line-of-sight obstructions, lifeguards face challenges caused by glare and shadows cast across the water's surface. The Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) states:

5.6.1.2.1.1 (A) Lifeguard Positions If the AQUATIC VENUE requires lifeguards, the AQUATIC FACILITY owner shall ensure that glare conditions are assessed from each lifeguard position as identified in the Zone of Patron Surveillance to determine if the AQUATIC VENUE bottom and objects in the POOL are clearly visible to QUALIFIED LIFEGUARD staff throughout operating hours per MAHC 6.3.3.1.1. (emphasis added)

What are aquatic facility operators, who are committed to the success of their lifeguarding team and dedicated to complying with the MAHC, supposed to do when testing with manikins and/or silhouettes during operating hours upsets patrons? …

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