For Safety's Sake

By George Deines
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / digoarpi

Ask any water-park operator about the park’s top priority, and hopefully he or she will say guest safety. Danger is inherent anytime millions of gallons of water are mixed with thousands of guests, a high percentage of which are children. To ensure guests are safe, operators spend countless hours each season on risk-management training. To help make parks even safer, operators should work diligently to better train staff members (supervisors, lifeguards, and guest services), continually educate guests, and frequently analyze a facility to identify and minimize risks.


Anytime a serious incident occurs at an aquatic facility, whether a drowning or near-drowning, the account tends to have the same key elements:

  1. Lack of adult supervision

  2. Lack of lifeguard recognition or attentiveness

  3. Facility issue (cloudy water, blind spots, or glare from the vantage point of the lifeguards, etc.).

This article seeks to explain each of these elements and suggest ways for operators to minimize exposure to a serious incident.

Lack Of Adult Supervision
The lack of adult supervision by water-park guests plagues every operator. Even though staff members work to train lifeguards at the highest level, the parent is still the first line of defense when it comes to preventing a serious incident in the water. Engaging parents in the safety of their children should be an operator priority. Creating marketing and signage, implementing supervision policies, and enforcing those policies can increase the level of parental involvement.

Before guests even arrive at the water park, inform them of safety expectations through the organization’s website, social media, and promotional literature. It could be as simple as putting a “Parents: Watch your children” graphic on a homepage, or intentionally adding safety-themed messages throughout Facebook-status updates and tweets.

The next opportunity to promote awareness is the guests’ arrival at the facility. Continue to educate them through signage, employee-to-guest communications, and policies and procedures. If the park’s expectation is for parents to supervise their children at all times, then that message must be communicated effectively, consistently, and repeatedly.

Be sure to train the management team, guest services, and lifeguards to be on the lookout for unattended children and distracted parents. Train staff members to be proactive when they see these situations. If parents are relaxing in the shade while their 6-year-old plays in the water, staff members should address this issue and enforce the park’s rules. If a lifeguard sees a 4-year old entering the wave pool without a parent, management should be notified as soon as possible, or better yet, the lifeguard can jump in. There’s no shame in making a “rescue” before it becomes a real rescue. When in doubt, check it out!

Lack Of Lifeguard Recognition
Let’s face it—lifeguards have a very difficult job, one that requires constant vigilance and attention to detail; however, they may be unable to maintain this intensity at all times. This is why parental supervision is so important—it adds an extra layer of protection in case the lifeguard is distracted or tired. When lifeguards exhibit any of these characteristics, it’s crucial for the on-duty supervisors to take immediate action. The “supervisor on-deck” should have the skill set and higher level of training to spot a tired lifeguard so the situation can be corrected.

In addition to continuous monitoring of lifeguards, supervisors should also conduct extensive recognition-training. It is possible for a lifeguard to exhibit head movement and scanning patterns, yet not actually perceive what is seen in the water. Therefore, operators should use a variety of techniques to raise the lifeguard’s level of awareness, including mannequin drops, live-action guest rescues, and exercises in which a lifeguard tells a supervisor what he or she actually sees in the scan. These methods are effective tools in evaluating how lifeguards recognize potentially dangerous situations in their areas of responsibility.

Another way to increase lifeguard attentiveness is to institute a communication policy that stipulates the length of time (typically 3 to 5 seconds) that a lifeguard should communicate with a guest before it’s necessary to summon a supervisor to help. Lifeguards should not be chatting with friends, carrying on conversations with guests, or assisting children in putting on life jackets.

Facility Issues Issues of cloudy water, blind spots, or surface glare abound in the water-park industry. These issues can become challenging—and dangerous—if they are not rectified. Most parks experience cloudy water at some point during a season. Usually these situations cannot be avoided and occur quickly, but the operator still must ensure that the park has a policy in place.

  • How cloudy is too cloudy?

  • Who makes the decision to shut down an attraction, or the entire pool?

  • How is the information relayed to guests?

Remember, if the bottom of the pool is visibly obscured or unable to be seen from the lifeguard’s vantage point, the pool should be closed immediately.

Depending on the time of day and the position of the sun, blind spots and surface glare can occur just as quickly as cloudy water. Plan for this by ensuring that each part of a lifeguard’s zone of protection is always visible no matter the time of day. Lifeguard stands or positions may need to be shifted depending on the conditions, but the most important task is for operators to be looking for glare and blind spots.

This article has merely touched the surface on risk-management in the water-park and aquatic world. But by promoting adult supervision, ensuring lifeguard recognition and attentiveness, and paying close attention to facility issues, you will be well on your way to a safe and successful season.

Nicole Van Winkle contributed to this report.

George Deines is the Aquatics Manager for the City of Garland, Texas. He holds degrees from the University of North Texas and Dallas Theological Seminary, and is an E&A lifeguard instructor. He is a member of the WWA Public Sector and Safety Committees, and is the president of the North Texas Aquatics Association.