There are those who think they understand drowning prevention and probably don’t, and those who don’t understand drowning prevention and yet are busy pulling apart the riddle to figure it out. A couple of months ago at the Life Saving Victoria (LSV) Pool Safety Summit I got to catch up with a colleague who I know is in the second category. Eoj Nigreb is a great bloke and in order to protect his identity and maintain his air of mystery, I’ve spelt his name backwards.

Everyone understands the importance of preventing drowning injury and death, Eoj also understands that any measure also needs to be affordable and practical. Affordable; because if it costs too much centres risk closing and then swimmers might decide to swim elsewhere, in one of the less safe environments we know about. Practical; because theory and data abounds; translating that into practice is the challenge. Recommendations of ‘consider more lifeguards’ or ‘consider installing Poseidon’ are sometimes simplistic. I have nothing against more lifeguards or Poseidon, I would love to have both but if neither are real possibilities for my pool then what benefit was made by the investment made in obtaining those recommendations?

Anyway, back to my chat with Eoj. Being the Guidelines for Safe Pool Operation (GSPO) nerds we are good old SU1 came up… Bather Supervision. SU1 5.2a to be exact… more examples of said nerdiness.

          SU1 5.2a; ‘A minimum of one qualified lifeguard should be supervising, facing and watching people in the water at all times’.

Eoj asked me; ‘How much of a lifeguard’s time do you think is actually spent watching the water?’

I said to be honest, I’d never really given it proper thought. He went onto say he knew. He had a small data set. Ok… now he’d really spiked my nerdy attention, and he knew it.

He told me that over a couple of months he’d attended a few centres and observed lifeguards armed with two stop watches. He would start both stop watches and then, whenever the lifeguard looked at anything other than the water, he’d stop the second stop watch. When the lifeguard looked back at the pool he started it again.

After 10 minutes, he could compare the two watches and determine what percentage of time the lifeguard had actually spent watching the water. He said that prior to the exercise he had estimated that it would be 90% of the time. He then said, in hushed tones, ‘it’s actually closer to… 40%’.

Whoa, whoa, whoa Eoj… what are you saying man? It’s all one big illusion? You’ll be shot down!

It was a great conversation. Either we have terrible lifeguards, or something else is going on. Maybe it’s our expectation that’s out of whack.

We often hear it said that lifeguards should be more preventative and less reactionary. ‘Lifeguards, not lifesavers’ and all that blah, blah (can you tell I hate the phrase?). For my mind, this entails not just looking at the pool, but around it. For example, if a young child was seen alone on pool deck it would be wonderful if our lifeguard would intervene; to prevent an incident. The same if they saw someone running on deck, or about to dive into the shallow end. All these can require the lifeguard to be looking somewhere other than the water.

This doesn’t mean a lifeguard shouldn’t also be looking for signs of a looming incident in the pool too.

SU1 5.3a establishes that lifeguards should be mobile. Surely, a lifeguard needs to be watching where they’re going? Lest you trip over a rogue kickboard. More time not watching the pool.

All this brings Eoj’s observations into perspective. Maybe ‘supervising, facing and watching people in the water at all times’ isn’t reasonable, or even possible with one lifeguard on a pool?

We recognise that prevention is better than a cure and we tell lifeguards they should be more preventative. If that’s right then when an incident occurs, we can’t be standing around tut-tutting with an incident report form and asking ‘where was the lifeguard?’ Horrified, that at that moment, no one was watching the pool.

Maybe we could have a lifeguard concentrating on prevention via intervention around the pool, and another concentrating on prevention via detection in the pool? It could be done. I’ve seen it done. You just need the strategy AND the supporting budget.

Detection in Australia is a tough gig at present. With a greater chance of being struck by lightning we really do have lifeguards out there looking for the needle in the haystack. The challenge now is how do we keep them vigilant for longer. We can rescue them, but how do we find them against the strain of constant vigilance when mostly, nothing happens.

Is 40% a problem? I don’t know. If it is, it’s equal parts industry issue and human issue, rather than purely a lifeguard one.

Thanks, Eoj. Most people take their cossie and towel, you take your stop watch and your brain… love your stuff mate. Keep up the good work.