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Industry is Failing Pool Lifeguards

Industry is Failing Pool Lifeguards & Placing Swimmers at Risk

The industry that governs and supports NZ pool lifeguards is falling well short of best practice and failing lifeguards and swimmers as a result, according to World President of IFSTA and National Aquatic Industry Safety Committee member David Speechley.

Speaking at the New Zealand Water Safety Council national conference today in Christchurch, Mr Speechley compared the effectiveness of the industry for beach lifeguards, where we’re seeing a reduction in drowning deaths, to a lack of rigour, assessment and continual improvement in public pool lifeguarding.

“There are some obvious reasons why drownings in public and resort pools across NZ and the world continue to rise,” he said.

“You’ll hear the word supervision talked about. ‘There needs to be better supervision’, the industry and our politicians will say; but what does that actually mean and what are they doing to achieve ‘better supervision’?

There are three layers to supervision:

1. Watching. This is where someone is looking attentively over a period of time. Parents watch.

2. Scanning. When you look at all parts of something carefully in order to detect some feature. This is the domain of Pool Lifeguards.

3. Surveillance. Continuous observation of a place, person, group or ongoing activity in order to gather information. There is NO SURVEILLANCE at Public Pools in NZ.

“Right now at public pools in NZ we have parents not doing a great job watching, lifeguards not doing a great job scanning and no continual surveillance. That’s pretty scary stuff,” he said.

“You start to realise that considerable responsibility is being placed on pool lifeguards, for which they are ill-prepared and unsupported; and when something goes wrong, unfairly blamed.

“It’s widely accepted in the industry that pool lifeguards do other jobs while lifeguarding… testing the water, mowing the lawn, cleaning the change rooms.

“Next time you are at a public pool, observe the lifeguard. What happens when they are putting a bandaid on a kid’s toe? Who’s scanning the pool then?

“The fact is, lifeguards cannot and do not have the capacity or ability to provide continual surveillance of a pool; and the problem with that of course, is that people sometimes drown quietly and sink quickly when lifeguards are on duty.

“Most people in difficulty (PID) are ‘discovered’ by other pool patrons. Lifeguards only detect 22% of PIDS. Even in public pools with lifeguards actively patrolling, fatalities still regularly occur.

Here’s why:
Research shows that lifeguards are only activity scanning the water 50% of the time
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Lifeguards do not expect people to be drowning and as a result their minds wander and they become bored and distracted
Sun, heat, blind spots, water agitation, all contribute to a poor sightlines
There’s very little industry self-evaluation and assessment for continual improvement
There’s no spot testing of lifeguards on duty
There’s no advanced lifeguard training or drowning preparedness training
Lifeguards need at least a 15 minute break every hour to effectively scan and this does not happen now
The current accepted ratio of 1 lifeguard to every 100 swimmers; and no lifeguard for under 20 swimmers, needs re-evaluation, because 13% of drownings occur when there are less than 20 people in the pool

So what needs to be done and what are other countries doing to reduce drownings in public pools?

“Europe, Asia, America and Canada are all turning to technology to support pool lifeguards by providing the missing link – 100% surveillance, at all times,” said Mr Speechley.

“Interestingly the newest public pool standard to be developed, ISO DIS 20380, is all about drowning detection systems, so clearly it is top of mind for the international water safety community.

“Technology is not about replacing lifeguards, it’s about supporting them by adding that layer of unwavering surveillance and detection, so the lifeguard can perform the rescue quickly and confidently,” said Mr Speechley.

“I would like to see New Zealand take it a step further and do the following to provide what I call the Gold Standard in pool water safety supervision, including:
1. Education for parents and caregivers on how to ‘watch’ effectively, the circumstances around accidents and how quickly fatalities can occur
2. Encourage patrons to notify lifeguards and the venue of any medical conditions for their own safety
3. Identify patrons swimming ability by tagging them
4. Regulate the conditions in which lifeguards do their job, including no ‘extra duties’, 15 min breaks every hour, advanced lifeguard training every year and reaccreditation every 3 years.
5. Compulsory installation of computer vision drowning detection technology in every new or renovated pool construction in NZ
6. The staged rollout of computer vision drowning detection technology across the current network of public pools in NZ

“I often ask pool patrons if they would be happy to pay an extra 10-20 cents at the gate if they knew their local pool had a drowning detection system in place, and the answer is always yes!”

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