We all know what a lifeguard looks like when they’re supervising an Australian pool. They walk around the deep end, they stop and look across the pool, they dawdle a bit more and then they might stand in one spot for five minutes or more looking across the pool. If they’re radar is switched on, something happening back up the deep end might catch their eye and they’ll change direction and head back up there. Love that stuff; lifeguarding driven by what their seeing unfold in front of them.

And it seems to work, or at least we think it does. Our low drowning rate, fatal or otherwise makes us think it is, although I’d ague that with lifeguards getting wet so rarely, it’s a bit hard to tell.

What do I mean by that?

Well I heard an interesting tale from a researcher. He was trying to determine the factors behind why rock fishermen wouldn’t wear life jackets. He learnt that in their minds, they already had a Plan B, and that was, ‘if I fall in, I’ll swim’. And, because they’d never died they thought their plan was working.

The real problem of course was they’d never fallen in, and so their plan B had never been tested.

So, under controlled conditions they got a local, cock sure, angler to voluntarily jump off the rocks in full kit, and swim for safety. Researchers weren’t really surprised when he pulled the pin and asked to be rescued.

So, does our Plan B work? Will our lifeguards detect an incident, or have we not really tested it?

Like most of you I’ve seen those YouTube videos of the Jeff Ellis lifeguards supervising their zones at US centres… mmmm, very different to here. It’s certainly thorough. Would I want to do it here? Dunno.

After delivering Red Zone training for just over two years I’ve noticed something. When lifeguards patrol a deck during a shift they behaved like I described above in the first paragraph. But, when I put a manikin in their pool and ask them to find it they behaved differently. For starters they walk faster. They checked every internal corner. They don’t cut the corner at an external corner. They double checked areas with shadows.

They stop scanning their pool and start searching it. They actively hunt their water.

So, why the difference? Why, when on duty and looking for a real body, do they not behave the same as when they’re looking for a manikin in training?

I’m not suggesting we march around the pool constantly in a panic. And, maybe a proper check of every square centimetre of the pool every 5 minutes wouldn’t be out of order.

In a 50m pool, you can’t clear the deep end until you’re within 10m of the end wall. How many lifeguards stand toward the shallow end under the illusion they can supervise the deep end. They can see the black line, so they think they can see the bottom. There’s no surface reflection so they think can see the top. Unfortunately, due to refraction they can’t see anything in the column of water.

As HG Nelson says; ‘time to head into the room of mirrors and have a good hard look at ourselves’.