Hey, Lifeguard, Look At Me!

Photos Courtesy Of 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

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