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I was on the phone last month with the Executive Officer of LIWA. His words aside for the moment, his voice was one of exasperation and frustration. It’s not often you hear him like this.

Westralians pride themselves on the way their show runs; a Government endorsed Code of Practice, strong membership, healthy attendances across metro & regional conferences, ironclad relationships between LIWA, Royal Life, Dept Sport & Rec, Dept Health and Water Corp.

It’s a recipe for success. Success that culminates in one almighty achievement; their incredibly low drowning rate at public facilities. In the early 2000’s three deaths rocked the WA scene and LIWA members stepped up to the mark.

On the phone, Tony’s world had tilted the day before. He’d been at a facility in Perth and, as is often the case, no one knew who he was. We work in the gold fish bowl and we never really know who’s watching.

I can’t write here the word Tony used to describe the lifeguarding…let’s just say it was a word that roughly translates to ‘substandard’. The lifeguards weren’t watching the pool, they stood together and didn’t check some areas for long periods of time. This was one of Perth’s big centres, a Group One facility and Tony was at a bit of a loss as to how to address it.

I told him about a similar experience I had at a facility in NSW. I’d arrived with my kids for a swim and watched two lifeguards stand together for the entire 40 minutes we were there. This is a centre with four bodies of water. I sat on the grass and looked around at the tell-tale signs of potential trouble; predictions of the future. Indicators so obvious that without prompting my 11-year-old daughter sitting next to me said; “Dad, should we do something about that?”I sat there and boiled. Like Tony, I wasn’t sure what I should do about it.

So, why does it happen? It seems simple.

When I’m helping an organisation the first thing I focus on is their Operations Manual. What does it say the lifeguards should be doing out there? I usually find one of two things. Either it doesn’t say much beyond ‘lifeguards must always watch the pool’. Or, it’s so prescriptive it turns lifeguards into robots, unable to do their job based on what’s happening in front of them.

The second thing I focus on is the Deck Supervisor. This position is the most important piece on the chess board. Everyone wants to be the supervisor because it comes with a few extra bucks. It also comes with a lot more responsibility. This is the person who ensures “we do, what we said we would’. This is the person charged with the job of walking up to their mates and saying; “You guys have been standing together for 3 minutes now. What’s going on?”

In the Coroner’s Court, this is the person who spends the most time in the hot seat. This person made the decisions on ‘that day’ and the court wants to know how they were arrived at. You become formally and legally held accountable.

The third thing I look at is the type of people who make up their team. If you want quality lifeguards, you probably need to be looking for the first responder type. The type who also does voluntary work for Surf Life, SES, St John’s, Firefighting, Coastguard, Army Reserve, Scouts, whatever. These people usually have a passion for the role, rather than just a passion for the, let’s face it, healthy hourly rate. If you need to remind someone to watch a pool, they’re probably not the right fit for the job. Ultimately, watching a pool is a personal responsibility.

For me, the fourth contributing factor is bitter sweet.

When I meet lifeguard teams I often ask; “Who made a save this summer? Who got wet?’ The majority just look around. Maybe one raises her hand.

The irony is the safer we get, the longer the period until the next event and so the riddle becomes, how can we stay vigilant for a whole year when nothing happens, and then be expected to recognise and respond in that narrow thirty second window?

There’s solid research demonstrating what happens to humans who spend long hours in low stimulation environments. It’s called boredom.

Part of the answer is high fidelity training. Most first response agencies are using it now. It helps keep us sharp between events. Then, when an event happens, auto pilot takes care of the small stuff, lightening the cognitive load for the big stuff; critical decision making.

Other advantages of high fidelity training are that you get to learn to work whilst under the effects of ‘Fight or Flight’ and learn that things go wrong and… you can fix them. You need to, you must.

So, what can you do to improve your team’s performance?

  1. Get some quality content in your Operations Manual; say what you’ll do.
  2. Ensure Deck Supervisors understand their role; doing what you said you’d do.
  3. Employ the right people.
  4. Get amongst high fidelity training.

There’s one last issue; the one Tony and I faced. What should we do when we see ‘substandard’ lifeguarding? Especially when it could seem like it’s none of our business?

In 2013 our Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison said something. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it and he was talking about a different issue when he said, ‘The standard you walk past is the standard you accept’. It applies equally here.

When we see poor lifeguarding, we need to find a way to tactfully raise it. We all have a role to play in public safety. The likelihood of a fatality is low. The consequences are high and long lasting. If you ever talk to a parent who’s lost a child to drowning, you’ll know what I mean. It’s important we do our best. Sometimes, even that won’t be enough.

The media recently reported that New Zealand’s notorious Swim Reaper character has reached our shores. For WA it’s been fifteen years since the Reaper had a win in a public facility. Less for the rest of us.

Don’t forget the lessons learnt. What standard will you accept?

If you oversee a lifeguard team, this might be a good article to stick up in the lunch room. Hopefully it’s not your staff we’re talking about.