I’m often asked by lifeguards, duty managers, managers, even risk & safety people, where I stand on gloves for lifeguards. Simple enough question.

When considering anything I like to go back to basic protocols. In this instance, it’s our primary assessment; DRSABCD (Danger, Response, Send, Airway, Breathing, CPR, Defibrillation).

Danger, stripped back to its bare bones, is the consideration of danger to yourself (the rescuer), others, and the casualty… in that order. Is there a danger to the rescuer of cross-contamination? Yes. How great that danger is depends on the context of the situation.

Ambulance officers arrive at every scene gloved up. Sometimes with multiple pairs on so they can peel them off as they move from casualty to casualty. Often they’re attending scenes with significant trauma, blood loss, persons affected by drugs which could mean diseases caught from sharing needles… and the list goes on.

These aren’t as prevalent at aquatic centres. Is there still a danger to lifeguards? Yes, but it may not be as great as that faced by other first responders.

The other factor I consider when thinking about gloves and lifeguards is the practical nature of putting them on.

I’m a volunteer in the NSW Rural Fire Service. In the truck, on the way to an incident I’m in and out of my ‘bubble’. My bubble is the place I go inside my head to remember my training. I’m devising a plan, I’m preparing, I’m controlling my heart rate. I’m suppressing emotion so that I can use intelligence. I hear a radio call and I’m out of my bubble. I respond and communicate new information with my crew. Then I’m back in my bubble, double checking my PPE (personal protective equipment). Sometimes this includes gloves. PPE is my armour, both physically and mentally.

Ambulance officers also put on their gloves on the way to the scene, as part of their preparation.

Lifeguards have no such luxury. Lifeguards hold a special niche in the world of first responders. They have no preparation time and… they’re Johnny on the spot. One second they’re asking a kid to stop running and the next it’s (excuse the French) shit street. No time to prepare. No time to suppress emotion. Heart rate escalates, adrenaline enters the blood stream, gross motor skills increase (strength) and fine motor skills (dexterity) plummet.

Putting gloves on in training is one thing. Putting them on when you’re shaking like a leaf with the strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger is another.

Increased rates of error for humans in their flight or fight zone are well documented. When things start to go wrong, it knocks us off kilter. If something goes wrong, we tend to get flustered and make more errors. If putting your gloves on is the first thing you’re supposed to do, and in the heat of the moment, you can’t, like you could in training, does this start the cascade of errors and the ensuing delay.

So, what’s the answer because surely, I’m not saying we shouldn’t wear gloves.

What I will say is that high fidelity scenario training is the ultimate testing ground. What I tend to see is lifeguards make a rescue and either forget to put their gloves on or, try and tear them in half or it takes too long, they give up. The first thing I point out to the duty manager (DM) when she arrives is that her team aren’t wearing gloves. She then usually runs to the first aid room and returns with a full box. As she approaches I whisper in a very serious tone; ‘don’t you dare interrupt that beautiful CPR’.

The DM has to get her gloves on and then coordinate a regime where she briefly takes over some part of the CPR while the next lifeguard gets their gloves on, and so on around the team, until everyone has gloves on and not at the expense of the outcome of the casualty.

Having been on the tough side of the Coroner’s stare, I also tend to put myself back in witness stand when thinking about aspect of drowning prevention, including seemingly simple stuff like the decision to glove or not to glove. If we’re in that kind of court then someone’s dead. What do I want the footage to show? Me fumbling with gloves and delaying the time to first ventilation? Or me doing everything reasonably practical to stop the Swim Reaper having a win today.

Learning to glove up is an important part of lifeguard training. Gloves are a layer of protection. I need to be able to do all the usual fiddly tasks. Over sized, baggy gloves are easy to get on but it won’t be very easy to change a seal in an oxygen regulator. I need the right size gloves and I need to practice.

And… if, during the real deal, I forget to put them on… I’m going to be to push on through my primary assessment.

If I tear them in two… I’m going to push on with my primary assessment.

If I just can’t get them on… I’m going to push on with my primary assessment.

My Duty managers will be my sheep dog when she arrives at the incidents. She won’t do my job. She’ll ensure I have everything I need so can do my job. She’ll help me protect myself and help me halt the casualty’s slide into death.

Pete DeQuincy in the US is a dead set guru at this stuff… and such a nasty lifeguard 🙂 He has a heap of 15 second videos with loads of variation; wet, dry, walking, blindfolded…yep blindfolded. You can check out Pete’s stuff here and then by clicking on the ‘Gloving Up Drills’ group of videos. Better still subscribe to his YouTube channel.