Deep Dive: Lifeguards

lifeguard-gear.jpg

Photo by American Red Cross

There is no question that lifeguards vastly reduce swimming casualties. The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) has calculated that the chances a swimmer may drown attending a beach protected by USLA affiliated lifeguards at 1 in 18 million.  According to the International Life Saving Federation (ILSF) “Most drownings happen in environments and during activities unsupervised by lifeguards. And the great majority of drownings occur in circumstances where the victim has no intention of going into the water.” [x]  This CDC report on the efficacy of lifeguards goes further into those details.

There is also no question that a lifeguard’s job requires a lot of skill, training, and support. A human being’s “vigilance capacity” (according to a 2001 study(1) done by experts at the Applied Anthropology Institute (AAI) ) cannot be maintained at an optimum level for longer than 30 minutes.1 Lifeguards aren’t unique in this regard, studies performed during WWII suggest that a person’s sustained attention begins to reduce anytime after the first 15 minutes of a task, depending on the complexity of the task being performed.  

After the first quarter or half hour, a solo lifeguard’s ability to process information will suffer. As a result, having a fifteen minutes “safety break” on the top of every hour may not be enough of a break for solo lifeguards. Keeping an eye on an entire pool does indeed require constant vigilance.

A lot of drowning prevention comes from, well, preventive lifeguarding such as intervening to stop potentially dangerous behavior before it becomes a problem, noticing weak or nonswimmers, noticing when a life jacket doesn’t fit properly, and stopping people who are engaging in dangerous behaviors around the pool. However, a lifeguard cannot effectively scan the pool and enforce rules and guidelines simultaneously. For the scanning lifeguard, drowning prevention is recognizing and responding to victim within 30 seconds. This isn’t helped by the fact that drowning doesn’t look like how drowning does in the movies (read more about that with the Instinctive Drowning Response.). Lifeguards who are scanning the pool have to be at the top of their game and only scanning the pool.

And while fatalities in swimming pools with lifeguards are significantly more uncommon, they do occur. This has less to do with the lifeguards are trained, motivated or are doing their jobs, and a lot to do with how they are being supported.

Ellis and Associates in Kingswood TX (2), in conjunction with Poseidon Technologies, Inc in Atlanta, Georgia, outlined these issues in their “First On-site Study of Vigilance Shows Lifeguards Can’t Possibly See Everything, All of the Time.” Major environmental and job-related factors inhibit lifeguards (or anyone’s!) ability to focus, including:

  • Vigilance Capacity

  • Noise

  • Quality of Visual Scans (the number of guests tends to reduce visual scans of the pool and increase distractions.)

  • Normal physiological functions tend to decrease in early afternoon, or due to lack of sleep.

  • Heat is a significant concern, especially when heat is above 86 degrees

So how can we, as aquatic facilities and guests alike, support Lifeguards?

For guests, knowing the signs of drowning, making sure to use US Coast-Guard approved flotation devices (these include awesome Puddle Jumpers -Ed.), which are not to be confused with flotation toys, paying attention to their children even with lifeguards on duty, and following the rules posted and said by staff are all key to having a safe and fun aquatic experience. And, of course, making sure you and your family know how to swim.


For aquatic facilities, we can support life guards by including good on-boarding practices, such as identifying the full scope of the waterfront, and verifying skills of all lifeguards. It is also good practice to keep regular training, in-services skill practice, and physical conditioning on the docket.

Another option to make life guards more effective is to consider how they’re utilized. Going back to the AAI study:

  • Breaks while rest breaks are important for recharging and replenishing a person’s vigilance capacity, changing the activity of the lifeguard has a very positive effect on the vigilance level. Alternating activities is beneficial to lifeguards as well) The study also mentioned taking the normal physiological functions into consideration, frequent and shorter breaks are optimal when a person’s alertness level is lower.  

  • Position of lifeguards: if they have blind spots, or if there are multiple activities going on a lifeguard will be less effective. Make sure that each facility has enough lifeguards for how it’s designed. As heat is a major factor for attention, having shade, access to cold water to drink, or even spray themselves with, is an important detail. Standing on a hot deck, or even walking around on a hard surface for extended periods of time increases fatigue, and reduces attention.

  • Back-up: Make sure there are enough lifeguards to cover all areas, and do other preventative lifeguarding or secondary duties.

  • Reduced Distractions: When a lifeguard is supposed to be vigilant let them be vigilant. Not being asked to perform other duties at the same time, or being distracted with guests questions. Customer service should be considered a separate task than lifeguarding. If rules are posted, guests should follow them, and other staff should enforce them so lifeguards aren’t distracted by people acting unsafe.
     

  • Safe Facilities. If the facility isn’t safe, then it makes it harder for lifeguards to do their jobs. Things like drop-offs, poor lighting, cloudy water, and slippery/abrasive decks can split the attention of lifeguards and make it harder for them to focus on scanning the pool.

Thank you for all your hard work, lifeguards, and thank you for everyone who supports lifeguards doing what they do best: guarding our lives.

(1) Coblentz A, Mollard R, Cabon Ph, Bibiographic Study on Lifeguard Vigilance, Applied Anthropology Laboratory, University of Paris V Rene Descartes; September 2001


(2) Ellis & Associates, Kingswood, TX, and Poseidon Technologies Inc., Atlanta, GA, First On-site Study of Vigilance Shows Lifeguards Can’t Possibly See Everything, All of the Time; December, 2001