Lately I’ve been asked a number of times what I think of lifeguard chairs. The short version is… I wouldn’t use one. There’s only one chair I’ve seen that I think works, but let’s talk about the others first.
We like them because we get to sit down. Being on your feet all day is tough. My physio likes to remind me that the checkout guy at Woolworths is fitter than me because he manages it.
There’s 3 reasons I don’t like chairs.
My first is that sitting down drops your heart rate to under 75 beats per minute; your White Zone. This is when you’re completely unaware of your surroundings. If something happens, you’ll be caught off guard and won’t be able to respond effectively because visual and cognitive reaction times are slow. Today it’s where humans in developed nations spend the bulk of their lives. Ideally, the only time you should be in the White Zone is when you’re secure at home or asleep. If you’re sitting down you might as well be laying down. You’re about to get sleepy, especially if it’s after lunch.
To be able to quickly detect and respond to emergencies, you really want to be in your Yellow Zone when your heart rate is between 75-95 BPM. Your fine motor skills, vigilance and cognitive ability are good. There’s no specific threat, but your head’s up, your eyes are open, and you’re taking in your surroundings in a relaxed and alert manner. You’re less likely to be caught off-guard and you’re better able to respond.
The second reason I don’t like chairs is I’m yet to find a fixed position on deck where you can see everywhere in the pool. To be frank, such a position probably doesn’t exist. Whether it be surface reflection, surface disturbance, refraction, … there’s plenty of reasons why you won’t be able to detect everywhere from one position. Only a serious of Dummy Drops can properly test what a position is capable of.
My last reason is that sitting in a chair means you don’t comply with industry standards. In Australia the Guidelines for Safe Pool Operation states that lifeguards need to be mobile and have a clear line of sight for the surface and the floor of the pool. In New Zealand, the Aquatic Facility Guidelines also talks about clear unobstructed lines of sight.
The only time I’ve seen a chair work is when they’re used it to compliment roving lifeguards. The person in the chair can use their radio to alert other lifeguards to potential issues. It works well and… it’s not the primary position for any pool.
In the US, lifeguard chairs are common and this partially stems from their low cost of labour. This means zoning a 50m pool into quarters and putting four lifeguards in four chairs is affordable and the detection of the entire pool is achievable because of the smaller zones. It’s more challenging when a lifeguard is required to cover larger areas.
The Bondi Rescue program has probably also raised the profile of the chair/tower position. Pools and beaches are very different environments and they require equally different approaches to provide effective supervision.