Why Recognition is Difficult
There is a common misconception that if the lifeguard is paying attention and seated on an elevated lifeguard stand, that they will easily be able to spot a struggling swimmer. This could not be further from the truth. Surface turbulence due to swimmers or wind, deep pools, and possible sight obstructions such as other swimmers or equipment are common occurrences in pools. The International Lifesaving Federation conducted research on drowning recognition and discovered that lifeguards can only recognize a submerged body from 10 meters away when the water is perfectly calm, and 2 meters away when surface turbulence (regular operations) is present. 2 meters is an unachievable distance from a lifeguard stand and it limits the lifeguard’s ability to see around obstructions and avoid sun glare. Through their research, it was determined that the best way to improve recognition of drowning victims by lifeguards is to develop walking paths that maximize visibility, require lifeguards to walk along their area of responsibility, always inspect and remove items from the bottom of the pool regardless of whether or not it appears to be a body (most submerged drowning victims are mistaken for a towel or t-shirt), and test out submerged objects in each body of water while surface turbulence is created. While these preventative measures set the lifeguards up for success during patron surveillance, they do not evaluate the lifeguard’s ability to recognize and respond to struggling swimmers or drowning victims.
What is an Audit?
Lifeguard Audits are a necessary safety program component for any aquatics facility. There are many opinions on what is the most valuable way to test a lifeguard’s skill in an unannounced drill. The goal is for the lifeguard to recognize there is a struggling swimmer, activate the emergency action plan (EAP), enter the water, perform the rescue, and evaluate/provide care for the swimmer. To ensure the safety of all involved, audits should be performed when backup patron surveillance is provided while the lifeguard is responding to the audit. Common ways to conduct an audit include using another staff member to enter the water wearing a red swim cap or t-shirt to signal that it is not a true drowning situation. While these types of audits are valuable in evaluating the lifeguard’s ability to provide care, it does not adequately evaluate the lifeguard’s ability to recognize a true struggling swimmer or potential drowning victim. Without recognition of the drowning victim, exceptional rescue and care skills will be applied much later than needed, which increases the likelihood of victim fatality or permanent brain damage.
Elements of a Successful Audit
An effective lifeguard audit will have an element of surprise, which is limited using a known colleague in a red shirt or swim cap. Lifeguards often spot the “victim” as they enter the water and are fully prepared for when the audit begins. Despite what is pictured in the movies, drowning victims do not call out or announce that they need help. Using a pre-determined object, such as a red hand towel that is easily thrown in the water can be the most effective option. It is small enough that the person conducting the audit can conceal it and get it into the water without the lifeguard seeing the audit begin, but large enough that when spread out, can appear very similar in size to a small child. Another benefit of a hand towel, unlike the commonly used ping pong ball, is that it floats for a few seconds before submerging, just like a struggling swimmer. When surveyed, lifeguards agreed that using a red towel as the “victim” during an audit required them to scan more effectively and thoroughly than a red cap drill since they did not see the “victim” enter the water.
The second element of an effective lifeguard audit is consistency. To successfully pass an audit, the lifeguard should be able to recognize the “victim,” activate the EAP, perform the rescue, and bring the “victim” to the edge of the pool under 30 seconds. Audits should not be used solely to determine who the best lifeguard is or who is “paying attention”. Recording which lifeguard station the audit took place at, weather, bather load, and amount of time it took to recognize the victim and perform the rescue provides valuable data. This data should be analyzed to determine where a lifeguard’s weak spots are and how best to address them. After each audit, regardless of whether it was a pass or fail, the lifeguard should be counseled on the results of the audit and any improvements needed in their scanning.
The last element of an effective audit is to make it realistic. While the “victim” is only a red hand towel, it is important to place it in a location where it is plausible and likely that a swimmer could struggle. Once the “rescue” is performed, the hand towel should be replaced with a CPR mannequin to allow for an appropriate initial assessment and care audit. Because the hand towel does not provide for a realistic rescue experience, staff will need to practice victim rescues separately from the audit. When a drowning occurs, it is more likely that recognition of the emergency was delayed as opposed to lack of skill when providing care. While both are important, ensuring lifeguards can recognize an emergency immediately can mean the difference between life and death.