Swim with a Buddy — Don’t Guard with One

September 28, 2011

Jennifer Knights
Program Coordinator — Aquatics
The University of Western Ontario

Lifeguards are social creatures. Pool decks are warm. Guards are often lulled by the mellow sounds of swimmers rhythmically making their way from one end of the pool to another. Types of swims vary as do the number of swimmers in the pool. The pool deck can be exciting. It can also be considered boring at times. These things combined may lead to situations where lifeguards gravitate towards each other and end up guarding side by side.

The term often used for this type of guarding is “buddy guarding” – although if you ask most aquatic supervisors what they would call it you would probably hear them let out an exasperated cry. It is definitely not something that is taught in lifeguard certification courses, yet most supervisors will tell you they have had to deal with it on at least one occasion — and that is an understatement. Even facilities with the best training, the most comprehensive policy and procedures manual, and the most hands-on aquatic supervisors can experience the buddy guarding phenomenon.

The scary thing is that many lifeguards do not understand why it is unsafe. In an age where technology is so prevalent in our everyday lives, many lifeguards think that trying to guard while chatting with another staff member is just another way to multi task. There are two main problems with that mindset. The first one is that when you are guarding a body of water if you are not thinking about scanning and guarding — you are probably not doing it. Lifeguards are constantly being challenged with distractions — noises by swimmers enjoying the water, music, the sound of someone going off a diving board, a parent calling down from a viewing area to their child… and filtering those intrusions is something that a lifeguard has to constantly focus on.

Visual distractions are also a challenge — many facilities are surrounded by glass and lifeguards can see beyond the pool deck into classrooms, other recreational spaces such as weight rooms, and even corridors complete with flat screen televisions. And those are just the visual distractions outside of the pool area. On deck they are supposed to be watching to make sure no one is wearing inappropriate footwear, bringing food into areas where it is not permitted, and the activities of the people in the water. Guarding with another person beside you adds to the challenge of being able to filter that sensory bombardment and determine when assistance or intervention is required.

The other problem with buddy guarding is that if you cannot see “it” you cannot guard “it”. Buddy guarding can leave bits and pieces, or even entire pool areas completely unsupervised. Glare, equipment, location of swimmers, and weather (outdoors of course) are all things that need to be considered when determining lifeguard locations and their zones of responsibility. Lifeguards should be vigilantly supervising the top, the middle, and the bottom of the pool in their designated zone. When lifeguards are located side by side effectively guarding the pool is not possible.

Is this just all common sense? It should be. So are a lot of things lifeguards should know including showing up to work rested and not feeling the effects of the night before, not bringing cell phones or MP3 players on to deck with them, sitting in a guard chair properly, guarding without swinging their whistle or rescue tube… but in a lot of instances common sense seems to have floated away. As managers and supervisors we need to incorporate common sense into our staff training and development sessions AND get the message to our staff in creative and impactful ways.

How can we do this? There are lots of great resources available to assist. Case studies and reports from Coroner’s Inquests can provide real life examples of aquatic accidents that have happened and can have great impact during training. Sharing the information surrounding the incident (where possible) is an excellent way to have it hit home with your guard team.

Videos are available with footage of emergencies (either real or mock) that can be used to generate discussion. I will never forget the extended silence that permeated the staff training session when our lifeguard team watched video of an actual drowning. They were warned in advance about the graphic nature of the video, and were given permission to opt out — although none of them did. Many of them commented that is was the most valuable training session they had ever attended.

Aquatic supervisors and managers that have been involved with major emergencies are often very willing to meet with staff teams to discuss their experiences. As someone who has been involved in aquatics for 20-plus years I find that sharing personal involvement I have had in major rescue situations — both the good things and the bad — is something that can change the mindset of a complacent team member in an instant.

The members of your aquatic team should know that aquatic accidents can happen anywhere at any time. Victims may not display the “typical” signs and may get into difficulty unnoticed. Emergencies don’t always happen when a pool is at capacity — quiet times when guards are lulled into a false sense of security or have perhaps “let their guard down” are also not immune to tragedy. Hearing members of your guard team say “Well that could never happen here” or “The lifeguard in that situation did that the wrong way” is a sign that they need a reality check, and well planned and creative staff training sessions are a great way to not only get rid of a bad habit, but to reduce the risk of a having life-changing tragedy occurring at your facility.

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