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Saving Lifeguards: Improving our System of Swim Safety


Sometimes facts and figures ensure that voices promoting improvements to the lifeguarding system aren't swimming against the tide.

The Centers for Disease Control created a report to improve safety practices in the employment of lifeguard personnel at swimming sites. Entitled “Lifeguard Effectiveness: A Report of the Working Group,” its findings resulted from a meeting arranged by the CDC that included a panel of experts to analyze lifeguard effectiveness at recreational waters.

Issues discussed by the panel include:

  • The efficacy of existing lifeguard services
  • Drowning fatalities and other hazards resulting from removal of lifeguards from facilities
  • Communicating information about the efficacy of lifeguards to relevant constituents
  • Additional resources about the efficacy of lifeguards


Individuals who doubt the need for lifeguards may have some misconceptions, the report points out.

“Many people assume that drowning persons are easy to identify because they exhibit obvious signs of distress,” the study says. “Instead, people tend to drown quietly and quickly. Children and adults are rarely able to call out or wave their arms when they are in distress in the water, and can submerge in 20-60 seconds.”

For those reasons, dismissing or distracting lifeguards can be a matter of life and death. The authors suggest that supervisors never double up on a lifeguard’s duties, such as handling admission to a facility or working at a concession stand.

The very presence of lifeguards makes the venue more water-safe by reducing risky behaviors by swimmers, the CDC report says. There are fewer incidents of drowning due to active horseplay or swimming in dangerous regions of the ocean, for instance.


Authors of the report make suggestions for policy makers that affect the safety of lifeguarding.

“Community and local government officials facing decisions about whether to begin, retain, or discontinue lifeguarding services typically want to know whether lifeguards are truly effective in preventing drowning and other aquatic mishaps, and whether the value of providing lifeguards outweighs the costs,” the report says.

Decision makers need to look into facts and figures such as:

  • The effects that lifeguards have on the safety of patrons’ safety and attitudes
  • The number of people using the facility or beach area
  • The incidence of water-related injuries and drownings at the facility or beach area
  • The comparison in number of water-related injuries and drownings at pools and beaches with and without lifeguards

The report underscores the fact that most drownings can be prevented. Using restrictions to properties, posting signage, educating the public, and fencing perimeters are some ideas to further the goal. And a report like this one increases the chance that voices promoting research and improvements to the lifeguarding system aren’t drowned out.

2016/366/95 The Y by Edna Wintl is licensed under CC BY 4.0

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