Aquatic Vigilance


Historically, lifeguarding has been all about rescue. However, current aquatic understanding considers recognition more important than rescue…rescue is vitally important, but recognition is key. Constant vigilance is what makes an effective lifeguard. Unfortunately even the greatest dedication and the most thorough training cannot eliminate the natural human limitations that challenge every lifeguard’s vigilance. About 500 to 700 children will probably drown in guarded pools in our country this year because it’s tough for even well motivated guards to remain vigilant.

Several studies have been made over the years that show that human concentration on a specific activity declines over time. Measurable decreases in attention were regularly demonstrated after thirty minutes of directed behavior with some decrement noted in only fifteen minutes. Other studies have shown that while alertness increases with the frequency of critical signs, it actually decreases with a preponderance of non-critical signals. This may explain why a larger number of aquatic tragedies occur in small flat-water pools than in crowded wave pools or on water attractions, where rescues occur regularly.

Other factors also adversely affect a guard’s ability to be watchful. Elevated temperatures and increased humidity dull the senses and have been shown to reduce vigilance from optimal by as much as 45%. Sharp or loud noises can divert a guard’s attention from scanning by evoking involuntary eye movement in the direction of the source of the sound. Such attention grabbing may be beneficial for spotting a vocal swimmer in distress, but is very distracting in a noisy pool or if the sound originates outside the pool area. Time of day is another factor to be considered…the average results of a recent study showed that it took three times longer for a lifeguard to spot a submerged manikin in the evening than it did before noon. The cause, visibility, fatigue or natural circadian rhythms, is immaterial…the adverse affect must be countered.

Natural human limitations cannot be significantly altered and certainly should not be disregarded. With but a little effort lifeguard management can minimize the deleterious effects of the above limitations.

Keep rotations short:

Lifeguards should not exceed 30 minutes of active surveillance duty without a short concentration break. At worst, a guard should have a 10-minute break every hour. Any tasks the guard performs while not scanning should be varied.

Practice scanning skills:

Emphasize proactive scanning with your lifeguards…use techniques like 10/10 and “The Five Minute Scanning Strategy” to ensure attentive guarding. Accept no performance that is below your standards…give them the tools they need and then require their use.

Keep lifeguards alert:

Develop a presence on the pool deck. Monitor your guards…personally and using observation reports (ask us about the “Quick Check Card”). Monitoring and unannounced drills help to keep guards alert. Be diligent to catch them doing it right, and then recognize their behavior. Watch for signs of fatigue and make changes as necessary.

Expect exceptional performance from your lifeguards. Don’t set them up for failure…remember that their only job while actively lifeguarding is to keep the patrons safe. Do everything you can to keep them alert, vigilant, and well prepared for any occurrence that may arise.

Please call us at 800-463-8546 to discuss this or any other risk management safety tip, or visit our web site at to learn more about JCC risk management issues.


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