Tragic Day at the Pool



SOUTHEAST CITY – 03/20/07: While lifeguards and family members worked to save 4-year-old [female victim], her 3-year-old brother, [male victim], apparently was unseen and drowning a few yards away.

At a private pool party Sunday night at [name] Park Aquatic Center in [town], a lifeguard saw [female victim] drowning and jumped in to rescue her, police said. She wasn't breathing. The lifeguard started performing CPR.

But while she was being resuscitated, [male victim] was drowning somewhere else in the pool, police said. Too late, a family member pulled [male victim] from the water. Lifeguards and paramedics tried CPR on him as well.

[Female victim] survived. [Male victim] died sometime during the night at [name] Medical Center.

A phone call to the [victim’s] home was not returned late Monday. No one answered the door at the home Monday afternoon.

The [victim’s] neighbors [name] held their 4-year-old daughter, [name], tightly as they listened in shock to the story.

[Neighbor] described [victims] as calm children. [Neighbor’s] own daughter takes swimming lessons at the pool twice a week.

“I can only speak highly of them,” [neighbor] said of staff at the county-owned pool. “They've done a great job with [my daughter].”

But she worried that the drowning might have taken place in a winding canal along the edge of the children's section of the pool.

The County pool, open year-round, has two indoor swim areas – a lap pool used mostly for adults and a leisure pool with a water slide and a jungle gym for kids. The deepest part of the leisure pool is 3.6 feet.

The canal snakes along the back of the leisure pool. Water jets create a current in the canal to sluice swimmers along. With effort, an adult can stand still in the current.

“If you're an adult it really pushes you,” said [witness], taking laps on the other side of the pool. “If you're a kid, I can't imagine.”

[Patron] brought his 7-year-old nephew, [name], to the pool Monday. [Patron], a former lifeguard, praised Park lifeguards for their watchfulness. But he worried that the water slide and play set obstructed some of the sight lines in the leisure pool.

“They kept a good eye,” he said, “but there are some places that are hard to see.”

A County police spokesman did not know where [male victim] drowned in the pool.

There were about 30 children at the private event with three lifeguards on duty, investigators said.

Lifeguards used a 30-minute “on” and 15-minute “off” rotation. At the time of the incident, two lifeguards were actively working.

Emergency personnel were dispatched to the pool shortly before 8 p.m. Sunday.

[County employee], division director of operations in the county's parks and recreation department, said that before Sunday, no one had drowned in a County pool during her 19 years in the department. “This really hasn't happened to us before,” she said. “This is so tragic.”

[County employee] defended the lifeguards at the event. “I've been a lifeguard in my earlier years. To even have to revive someone, that's a true test of training,” she said. “You go into autopilot. And they did and they saved that little girl. Our lifeguard staff are well-trained. They did their job. They saved a life.”

Along with cooperating with the police investigation, [county employee] said she had launched her own review of the county's water safety procedures to see if changes need to be made.

[State] law and County ordinances are relatively non-specific when it comes to lifeguard training. Lifeguards are required to have training from the American Red Cross or another nationally-recognized training program.

[County employee] said it is park department policy that lifeguards be professionally trained in Red Cross CPR techniques and administering first aid and defibrillator use.

The county also emphasizes parental and adult supervision of children at public pools. All children under the age of 6 must be accompanied by an adult, wearing a swimming suit and within arm's reach of a child at all times. At group events there must be one adult for every six children in the pool, [county employee] said.

“[County] has got a good program,” said [Red Cross Rep], aquatic program specialist for the metro [City] Red Cross. “They routinely refresh their guards' skills.”

Other than expressing condolences to the victim's family, County officials deferred most questions about the incident to the police department.

“The County Board of Commissioners regrets this tragic event,” Chairman [name] said. “We extend our thoughts and prayers to those who are so deeply affected by this tragedy.”

General comments

Every drowning and near drowning involves a unique set of circumstances, but there are some elements or contributing factors that appear with frightening frequency, such as the following. * The incident occurs when the pool is being used for special events (e.g., birthday or other pool parties, use by outside groups, open or family swim involving people who are not regular pool users, etc.) instead of regular structured programming. Contributing factors may include: * lack of clear accountability (lifeguards versus chaperones) * insufficient number of lifeguards or lookout staff on the pool deck * lack of swimming skills assessment (swim testing) and related identification of weak or non-swimmers. * Lack of effective scanning and identification of victims potentially in distress. * Guards are not positioned to see all of the pool bottom in their individual areas of responsibility * Guards are not consistently attentive – talking, eating, and ancillary duties interrupt scanning * Guards do not consistently scan appropriately, e.g., from bottom to top, covering all of their area of responsibility every 10 seconds * Guards have not been adequately trained in recognizing troubled swimmers, especially youth * Lack of adherence to the principle “If you don’t know, GO!” * Lack of effective CPR competency * Insufficient protocols or inadequate training and compliance with protocols regarding pool control during an emergency event – e.g., clearing the pool, controlling the crowd, watching the pool even though it is theoretically empty * Lack of management attention on aquatic safety. * Lack of parental attention.

Specific comment

  • If staff had followed a protocol that cleared the pool, verified that the pool was empty, and kept a watch over the water during the situation, this tragedy would not have occurred.

Aquatic safety challenges in the camp community

  • Some camps have developed truly effective structures and strategies to promote aquatic safety, but the majority of camps have yet to accomplish that goal. Issues like budget constraints, staff turnover, ancillary lifeguard duties, and lack of management understanding of and attention to aquatic safety frequently have a negative impact on a camp’s ability to consistently deliver effective performance on the pool deck.
  • The perception that a lifeguard’s job is to save lives has to be corrected. The primary job of a lifeguard is to keep the people in the pool from harm, not to save lives. Lifesaving is the contingency that must be employed if we fail at our initial task or if there is an uncontrollable medical event. Obviously it is an important contingency for which we must diligently prepare, but since it is far better to keep from harm than to rescue from harm we should be even more diligent to learn and practice the skills that enable keeping the kids safe.
  • It is extremely difficult for lifeguards to be consistently vigilant and effective without specific training, individual accountability, and in-service training.

Critical changes needed in camp aquatic safety practices and management systems

  • Camps must ensure that lifeguards are using focused, objective, observable, and measurable strategies to effectively scan aquatic venues and identify victims in distress in a timely manner. This can be accomplished by ensuring that appropriate training and certification/licensing of lifeguards is occurring, that regular in-service training, drills, and skills practice are being provided, and that regular monitoring of lifeguard technique is being done by camp management.
  • Camps should implement protocols for water competency testing that require the testing of young swimmers before they can enter even the shallow portion of the pool. The testing should determine both deep-water and shallow-water-competency and should restrict those who pass neither to being within arm’s reach of an actively involved adult caregiver, and/or in a life jacket at all times they are in the water.
  • Camps must raise the awareness of aquatics and create/maintain a culture of safety that not only permeates the organization but also communicates its message to members and participants. When the lives of children are at stake we cannot allow any of the involved parties to shirk their responsibility – we must work together for the good of the children.
  • Camp leaders should involve all staff in aquatic safety, making them accountable by developing then auditing against specific expectations, celebrating successes, coaching when necessary, and appropriately correcting if needed. Non-participation and failure are unacceptable individual outcomes – we will succeed or fail as one.
  • Camps should refocus on teaching America how to swim – especially those who don’t necessarily have easy access to pools or don’t have traditional involvement with the water. No child should advance beyond elementary school without learning this important, potentially life saving skill.

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 camp risk management issues.


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