Drowning audits improve lifeguards’ performance, save lives

UAB professor discovers key to making better lifeguards.

At first, all appears calm at a Birmingham-area YMCA. Swimmers splash in the pool, and a stone-faced lifeguard sits at his post and scans the area.

Then Aquatics Director Jennifer Dick marches in and slams a large, gray body bag onto the pool deck. She unzips it, takes out “Fred” – a 150-pound mannequin – and throws him into the water.

“It’s audit time,” she calls out.

Birmingham-area YMCAs have been auditing its lifeguards’ emergency-response skills for five years. This past summer, David Schwebel, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, analyzed the behavior of the lifeguards before and after audits, and his findings, the first study of its kind, were published in the May 2011 issue of International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education.

Schwebel decided to investigate after reviewing statistics that revealed the presence of a lifeguard doesn’t preclude drowning. There were 140 drowning deaths with a lifeguard watching in 37 states from 2000 to 2008; of those, 78 percent were children, according to a study published in the January 2011 issue of Injury Prevention.

“People should not be dying when a lifeguard is on duty,” Schwebel said. “We change that by making our lifeguards better.”

Schwebel first analyzed the psychology behind lifeguarding — attention, focus, concentration and perception. Then, he studied the effects of the YMCA drowning audits to see if they improved lifeguard performance.

“The audits are meant to shock the lifeguard, remind them they are vulnerable to a drowning and assess their ability to respond properly,” Schwebel said.

Schwebel secured permission to monitor lifeguards and swimmers in 14 Birmingham YMCAs before and after the drowning audits and the team recorded its observations.

“We were glad to partner with UAB for this study,” Dick said. “I am open to anyone coming in and seeing what we are doing and testing us.”

The audits were dramatic, Schwebel remembers.

Members were asked to clear the pool, and the lifeguard worked to save “Fred” while Dick and the location’s aquatics supervisor and executive director watched. 

The lifeguards reacted in a number of ways, Schwebel said. “Some were calm and skilled,” he said. “There were lifeguards who hesitated and were emotionally distraught. I saw a wide range of skill and reaction.”

Lifeguards who weren’t successful received remediation, and those who made mistakes after additional training were replaced, Dick said.

“We make sure the lifeguard knows what they did wrong and how to fix it,” Dick said. “The audits have been very effective.”

Schwebel’s results confirmed the audits improve safety.

“After the audits, the lifeguards watched the pool more carefully, and the children in the pool sensed that and behaved better as well,” Schwebel said. “They are effective. I would like to see them used more widely.”

“Lifeguarding is a hard task,” Schwebel said. “We are asking young people, for very little pay, to focus and save lives and to pay attention for a very long time. It’s hard.” 

“I hope this study will encourage the industry to continue the practice of training its lifeguards,” Schwebel continued. “They are not teens paid to get a tan all summer. They are professionals.”

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