Hey, Lifeguard, Look At Me!

By Keith Bibb
Photos Courtesy Of Keith Bibb

This past June, I paused to observe an energetic 5-year-old who was getting a lifeguard’s attention by yelling, “Hey, lifeguard, look at me!” As an aquatic manager, I’ve heard those five words countless times from children over the course of many summers. Prudently, the lifeguard turned to scan and focus on the activity of this preschooler just in time to see him execute his unpolished version of a wheelhouse kick as he catapulted into the water. Having survived the stunt, the child surfaced, but had aspirated some water. Panic set in as the child floundered near the pool surface. Within seconds, the lifeguard activated the facility’s emergency-action plan using her whistle, and made the appropriate entry and rescue. Although this incident had a happy ending, several active drowning episodes at public pools across the country have not had such fortunate outcomes.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," [I]n 2011, 19 percent of children drowning fatalities took place in public pools with certified lifeguards on duty.” (Snyder & Assoc., 2012) Clearly, there is an issue here that needs to be addressed by lifeguard instructors, aquatic managers, and recreation administrators.

Victim Recognition
What measures must be employed to drastically reduce this statistic? The solution lies with the ability of lifeguards to identify, assess, and quickly respond to swimmers who are distressed or are actively drowning. Victim recognition is the key. But to the untrained eye, as maritime-safety writer Mario Vittone has stated,” [D]rowning does not look like drowning.” (Vittone, 2010) On television and in the movies, ear-piercing screams for help and the thrashing of the head, shoulders, and flapping arms on the surface of the water are purely theatrical hoaxes fabricated for entertainment purposes. Drowning does not happen that way in real life. In fact, the body language of an active drowning victim’s movements and position in the water appear mundane and often go unnoticed by people in the area, including some poorly trained lifeguards. Distressed swimmers and active drowning victims display a number of subtle body-language characteristics that have been identified by noted publicist and lifeguard Francesco A. Pia. (Pia, 1974):

Four characteristics clearly indicate when a victim is drowning:

  • Vertical body position

  • No forward progression or locomotion

  • No supportive kick (lack of or little leg movement)

  • Head low in the water and tilted back.

A distressed swimmer is another type of victim that lifeguards must be able to identify for the simple reason that that person can quickly become an active drowning victim. Swimmers who use the dog-paddle stroke display every characteristic of a distressed swimmer:

  • Diagonal to vertical body position

  • Slow and labored progress

  • Weak coordination of arm and leg action

  • Calling out or waving for help.

If lifeguards cannot correctly describe these actions, then how can they be expected to recognize and respond accordingly? These indicators must be reviewed extensively in the classroom and then demonstrated at poolside by each lifeguard candidate in training.

Scanning Techniques
Incorporating and accurately identifying these characteristics with a good scanning technique will ensure the safety of patrons. Lifeguards should be instructed to turn their head from side to side while scanning an area of responsibility. Staring straight ahead and using one’s peripheral vision for flanking areas in their surveillance may eventually result in a drowning incident. Aquatic managers should observe their lifeguards’ scanning techniques on a daily basis and correct any inadequacies. There are various scanning games, drills, and scenario exercises available on the internet that lifeguard instructors and aquatic managers can use for in-service training.

Identifying Dangerous Behavior
A mother scurries past with her 4-year-old daughter and her 6-year-old son in tow. They point excitedly at the drop slide and diving board located in the deep-water end of the pool (12 feet). I follow at a distance to observe the events as they unfold. The lifeguard, who has not noticed me, is intently watching the 6-year-old as he makes his way up to the diving board. His walk to the edge of the board appears hesitant and unsteady, like that of a person teetering on the ledge of a high building. Both mother and daughter are standing at the edge of the pool near the exit ladder. With his mother coaxing him, he jumps, landing near the side of the pool. He quickly comes to the surface where he begins to dog paddle. It takes him about 10 seconds to travel 6 feet where he can exit the pool with his mother’s assistance, and then he starts to walk back to the diving board. The lifeguard on duty fails to stop this activity, so I intervene by calling the mother, son, and daughter over to advise them of the reasons they cannot be in the deep end.

Many parents place their children in harm’s way by not considering various safety issues. When lifeguards are on duty, parents must understand that they, too, are responsible when it comes to the safety of their children. Aquatic managers and lifeguard staff members need to encourage guardians or parents to become familiar with the rules and policies posted at the aquatic facility, and then pass that information on to their children. This can prevent many problems.

There are clues and signals that lifeguards can identify in patron behavior that indicate when potential life-threatening incidents will occur. Listed below are a number of red-flag indicators and suggestions that can prevent lifeguards from the need to activate a facility’s emergency-action plan:

  • Place yellow waterproof wristbands on any patron who wears a life jacket.

  • Place red waterproof wristbands on any patron who is physically or mentally challenged. (Colored wristbands help lifeguards recognize a swimmer’s ability.)

  • Administer a swim test for young children who wish to enter the deep end of the pool, with an off-duty lifeguard at their side.

  • Remove any children who appear hesitant, nervous, or are being coaxed to enter the water by parents or playmates from diving or slide structures.

  • Remove children from diving structures when they prepare to enter the water from the side of the diving board and also from deck side. (This indicates the child has little or no confidence in his or her swimming ability.)

  • Remove children who exclusively use the dog-paddle stroke in deep water.

A Word About The Dog Paddle
The dog paddle is an unsafe and minimally effective stroke that fits all the criteria seen in the hydrodynamic principles of a distressed swimmer. Dog paddlers do not extend or reach completely out with their arms and legs, resulting in short rapid movements. Also, a dog-paddler’s head is raised upward, causing the torso and legs to angle downward in a diagonal position under the surface of the water, thus causing forward locomotion to become labored and slow.

From these observations, one can conclude that the dog-paddle stroke is indeed that of a distressed swimmer, and it will only be a matter of time before that child uses up all of his or her energy and may become an active drowning victim. Unfortunately, many parents are under the misguided perception that their child is a proficient swimmer when they see this stroke being used. Only through communication and education can we change this perception. In 2011, the CDC determined, “Participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children between the ages of 1-4.” (Snyder & Assoc., 2012) Prompting parents to enroll their children in quality swim lessons is an ideal way to educate children and their parents in aquatic safety. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of all aquatic staff members to promote and educate the public in aquatic safety.

Effective Staff Training
Providing lifeguard staff with quality training in victim recognition and aquatic safety requires a full commitment on behalf of instructors and aquatic managers. Investing the time and effort in staff training is an affordable insurance policy that should not be overlooked.

Managers and instructors can achieve a highly effective, well-trained lifeguard staff by using the following guidelines:

  • Be clear in communicating expectations.

  • Remind first responders regularly of their importance.

  • Develop an effective training program with an emphasis on aquatic safety and victim recognition.

  • Display a positive and serious attitude during training for lifeguards and aquatic staff. Lead by example!

  • Be creative in developing a program that will engage and challenge staff members with team-building exercises, games, drills, and scenarios.

  • Instill confidence and teamwork through encouragement and express gratitude for a job well done.

Lifeguard instructors and aquatic managers face a daunting task in making staff members comprehend the level of responsibility that has been placed squarely on their shoulders. Only through an investment of time, training, and energy can we prevent accidental drownings.

Work Cited
“Swimming Injury Statistics”: Edgar Snyder & Assoc., Website, 2012.
“Boating Safety and Water Safety”: Mario Vittone, May 3, 2010.
“The Instinctive Drowning Response”: Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., July 1974.
“Swimming Injury Statistics”: Edgar Snyder & Assoc. Website, 2012.

Keith Bibb is a Recreation Specialist/Aquatics for the Sherman Parks and Recreation Department in Sherman, Texas. Reach him at (903) 892-7221, or Keithb@ci.sherman.tx.us.