Identifying and Saving High Risk Swimmers Key To Victim Prevention
The American Red Cross Lifeguard Manual teaches lifeguards that their primary responsibility is to "prevent injury by minimizing or eliminating hazardous situations or behaviors." But as for guidelines to identify potential drowning victims before they become distressed, aquatic safety organizations are largely silent.
It is important for lifeguards to be able to define who is at a higher risk. Therefore, the current guidelines should not begin at victim recognition but at victim prevention. This includes recognizing a potentially distressed swimmer.
To this end, South Bend (Ind.) Parks and Recreation has redeveloped the concept of a walking patrol into what could now be referred to as a "risk guard." It is the risk guard's responsibility to recognize high-risk and weaker swimmers in four categories:
• Boppers are typically non-swimmers who jump up and down to keep their nose and mouth above the level of the water. This can lead to a potentially dangerous situation, especially in older pools that are built with a gradual slope. Upon seeing a bopper, the risk guard should explain the danger and direct him or her to stay in a shallower end of the pool.
• Floppers are toddlers who could fall into shallow water but do not have the muscle coordination to pick themselves back up. The risk guard needs to tell the flopper's parents that the pool's rules require them to stay within arm's reach of their toddler. However, since this can be a hard rule to enforce, the risk guard must be positioned near the child in order to lower the risk of injury or death.
• Hangers are usually non-swimmers who hold onto the ledge of the pool in order to get around instead of swimming or touching the bottom. The risk guard must make sure the water depth will not be over the hanger's head if he or she lets go of the wall — and if it is, move him or her to shallower water and not past the point where the water depth would put him or her in jeopardy.
• Finally, the risk guard should be on the lookout for breath-holders, swimmers who are at risk of drowning by attempting to talk underwater, holding their breath for long periods of time or swimming a long distance underwater. The risk guard should tell these patrons that holding their breath for extended periods of time is hazardous and against pool rules.
These four categories of high-risk, potentially distressed swimmers should be clearly explained to all lifeguards — and, to help ensure that young guards fully understand, relevant tests, challenges and quizzes should be developed. Early-season tests focusing on updating lifeguard certifications should include performance tests as well as written exams. In-season testing should include "Red Ball Drills," as well as external audits (performed by "secret shoppers" who observe the lifeguards' scanning and skills while on duty) and internal audits (performed by staff who, similarly, concentrate on lifeguards' scanning abilities).
All lifeguards are taught what the American Red Cross Lifeguard Manual calls the four elements to effective surveillance: victim recognition, proper scanning, lifeguard stations and area of responsibility. Yet, this may not be sufficient to ensure walking patrols are effective in preventing potential victims and educating them and their parents. Focusing on boppers, floppers, hangers and breath-holders — so named to make it easier for younger staff members to remember these categories of swimmer — has helped South Bend staff change high-risk situations to lower- or no-risk situations.
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