In a tragic drowning case that did not receive much media attention, a fully clothed six-year-old boy drowned at an annual residential pool party. What made this story unusual was that many precautions were put into place in order to prevent drowning at the event. First and foremost, a lifeguard was hired to watch the children playing in the pool. Secondly, every adult attending the pool party was a medical professional — a doctor, nurse or surgeon.
The child fell into the pool fully dressed as he was preparing to go home with his parents and struggled briefly before losing consciousness. His lifeless body floated on the surface.
With a lifeguard on duty and an abundance of highly educated and well-trained physicians in attendance, the child died of drowning after being in the water for only two minutes. This sad story illustrates the fact that even the most educated and well-trained supervisors can fail to detect and recognize the drowning process, the biggest challenge for lifeguards. Moreover, that this episode could unfold in a backyard pool only emphasizes the supervision challenges facing operators of larger commercial aquatics facilities.
Since drowning has been recognized as a leading cause of accidental death in the United States, improving supervision has for decades been the rallying cry among most water safety professionals.
Reasonably prudent professionals continue to insist on popular water safety mantras, such as "active supervision not passive supervision," "arm's length away," and "don't be distracted" around the water. "Constant, vigilant supervision" also has been promoted, even though it is not humanly possible for even the most conscientious individual to remain vigilant for extended periods. With increased use of social media and handheld technologies, effective supervision will only get more difficult to achieve.
While strengthening supervision around the water is something that should be stressed, it is time to focus on supplementing supervision with technology. In addition, when it comes to lifeguarding skills and drills, our review of the literature suggests a bias toward reactive rescue and resuscitation rather than proactive prevention.
Recent research has been abundantly clear that all human beings are prone to human error, especially when it comes to observation and supervision. For more than a quarter century, cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Simmons and Christopher Chabris (The Invisible Gorilla, 2011) have illustrated the fact that humans see what they want to see and what they expect to see. Although the eyes might see a child in distress, the brain often does not perceive it.
Likewise, the bystander effect informs us that when a critically distressed person is encountered in public and there are multiple individuals present who do not act, the social norm is to not respond to help the individual in distress. Studies consistently show that a plethora of people in a public setting will walk past a person who is clearly in need of medical attention.
Our investigations of numerous drowning deaths that occurred with lifeguards on duty strongly suggest that even lifeguards fall prey to the bystander effect. More recently, our published research with more than 800 lifeguards participating indicates internal noise — that is, distracting thoughts and emotions — is a significant detriment to supervising a pool or other body of water. When it comes to these mental distractions, too often our minds are thinking in the past or the future while our eyes are watching the water in the present.
Based on these studies and more, it appears if we continue to rely solely on the human senses to detect distress in the water, drowning will continue to be a major threat in this country.
Drowning prevention and detection systems have been evolving, with improving results.
Poseidon Technologies was one of the early outliers in this field and now boasts approximately 50 successful rescues that lifeguards initially missed, but other innovations have entered the market in the meantime. Some require swimmers to wear wristbands or headbands. Others offer security cameras with live footage above and below the surface of the water displayed in similar fashion to what one might see behind the reception desk in a hotel.
Some of the drowning prevention/detection systems available include the aforementioned Poseidon Technologies, Angel Eye, Blue Fox, Sentag, Coral Manta and Wahoo. Simply put, these technologies are not susceptible to making the types of errors that humans make.
That said, a word of caution regarding camera coverage for swimming pools: Research has also found that viewers of video images are horrible at detecting the obvious. There is a reason why many of these camera systems are called security cameras instead of safety cameras.
Among available technologies designed to prevent drowning in swimming pools and waterparks is one that is affordable, effective and often overlooked: the life jacket. Invented centuries ago, the life jacket continues to be viewed as a boating and open-water rescue device rather than a drowning prevention device in commercial aquatics settings.
Through our non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, Note & Float Life Jacket Fund, we have donated more than 1,000 life jackets to facilities in need. Not only have Note & Float facilities shown a reduction of more than 50 percent in water rescues, but swim lesson enrollment and attendance have increased significantly. Statistics clearly illustrate major benefits of life jackets with minimal investment. In fact, we have yet to discover a single case of a child drowning in a swimming pool while wearing a properly fitting United States Coast Guard-approved life jacket.
Aquatics and recreation professionals must continue to stress close, active and vigilant supervision by all water watchers, including parents, teachers, counselors and lifeguards. At the same time, these same professionals must supplement that supervision with investments in drowning detection/prevention technologies — from the sophisticated and expensive to the simple and affordable.
This article originally appeared in the January | February 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Drowning prevention requires more than supervision." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.