June 2, 2023

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How can training improve lifeguard incident detection?

Lifeguard class

Research on interventions has received considerably less attention than on the mechanics of how a lifeguard detects a drowning casualty. Lifeguard class provides essential skills and knowledge for individuals who are passionate about water safety, including first aid, rescue techniques, and effective communication in emergency situations.

Despite the low number of studies, those conducted have shown potential benefits which operators can utilize to improve the performance of their teams.

Not all studies have confirmed the effectiveness of the strategy proposed. Studies examining the effectiveness of scanning strategies have suggested they have little to no positive effect on the lifeguard detection rate. For further context, see our article on the mechanics of how lifeguard class detect drownings.

Guided Search Theory 

GST is a strategy of surveillance by priority that resembles existing models of laboratory visual search (Wolfe, 2007). The theory suggests that mental maps are created based on the features of stimuli presented in a static visual search task, and items are inspected sequentially to determine whether they are the target item.

This model explains many diverse visual search results. Because feature maps contain areas of activation based on salience at a local level, participants can rapidly detect salient “oddball” stimuli.

GST sees the lifeguard class as an “anomaly hunter”. surveying the visual space around the swimming pool and looking for disruptions to patterns of behavior and the presence of information that is inconsistent with a lifeguard’s expectation of what should occur.

If GST is an accurate representation of how the lifeguard scans, detects and intervenes in and around the swimming pool, several possible interventions may improve lifeguard performance:

Experience of lifeguarding in the same environment improves detection rates over time. This would suggest shadow lifeguard shifts, video footage from the same environment, and accounts of site-based lifeguard experiences of rescue and recovery retold in training may improve detection rates.

Newly inducted lifeguards at the facility would demonstrate the lowest detection rates.
Detection rates across different session types may vary based on a lifeguard’s experience of that session type.
Differences may be observable between lifeguard class with experience of lifeguarding at similar pools and sessions across other facilities and those who are new to lifeguarding.

Bodies of research outside lifeguarding, such as the work of Baron-Cohen (2009) on the diversity of systemizing empathizing circuits within the brain, could be useful for explaining individual variability irrespective of lifeguard experience. Natural aptitude may be a significant factor in visual surveillance performance if learnt behaviors provide little opportunity for skill acquisition.

It may also explain how some lifeguards remain more relaxed than others when lifeguarding. Duhigg wrote that when a habit emerges, “the brain stops fully participating in decision-making and can stop working as hard or divert focus to other tasks” (Duhigg, 2012, p.20). This may explain why those with systemizing dispositions find it easier to lifeguard than those with an empathizing disposition.

Passive Search Theory 

PST is described by Smile, Dixon, and Merkle (2006) and Smile, Enns, Eastwood, and Merkle (2006) would instruct lifeguards to simply let the target item pop into their minds without creating artificial targets or search strategies.

Passive search has been found to be more efficient (less affected by set size) than active search when searching for a difficult target such as drowning (Smilek, Dixon, et al., 2006; Smile, Enns, et al., 2006). As one lifeguard put it: “I try to watch the whole zone and make sure there isn’t any weird stuff happening” (Lanigan Reitzel et al., 2015).

Some studies have suggested that a prescribed scan pattern can induce perceptual blindness and that a spontaneous visual search can be more efficient than an actively guided search (Pia, 2017a; Watson, Brennan, Kingstone, & Enns, 2010; Wolfe, Alvarez, & Horowitz, 2000).

PST suggests that lifeguard class detection rates are more likely to improve when distractions and harsh working environments and conditions are improved than anything that can be taught via visual search strategies. It is unclear what the effect on improvements to contextual knowledge would be under PST.

One argument is to say that increased contextual knowledge would lead to a decrease in “weird stuff” and consequently poorer rates of detection in pool users showing expected drowning behaviours than those who show atypical behaviours. That would seem to contradict the prevailing view of contemporary researchers.

Mid-season lifeguard meeting

Schwoebel et al. (2007) observed lifeguards for several weeks prior to intervening with a mid-season lifeguard meeting to assess the impact on detection rates. Lifeguards were exposed to a brief training session consisting of lessons designed to increase the lifeguards’ perception of susceptibility to drowning events at their pool, educate the lifeguards about the potential severity of a drowning event, and help lifeguards overcome perceived barriers to effectively scanning the swimming area (Schwoebel, Lindsay, & Simpson, 2007).

Schwoebel reported an improvement in the quality of lifeguard hazard detection over the remaining two weeks of the trial, although cautioned that the uplift was not likely to maintain post-intervention detection rates forever and repeated use of the technique would likely weaken its effect. If the evidence on contextual knowledge is correct, lifeguard detection rates should improve where lifeguard class are provided regular information on what drowning casualties look like.

Simulated drowning audits

Role-specific scenario training has been suggested to improve detection rates (Martin, Kolomitro, and Lam, 2014). An alternative strategy, now popular in the industry, is the use of simulated drowning lifeguard class audits. Audits are required to meet insurance liability requirements at thousands of swimming facilities worldwide.

The audit begins when a supervisor arrives unannounced at the swimming facility and informs the lifeguard(s) on duty that a simulated drowning audit will occur (Ellis & Associates, 2000).

At that point, either a life-size three-dimensional dummy (which floats on the water surface) or a two-dimensional shadow-dummy (which drops to the bottom of the water, the more typical drowning scenario) is dropped into the water.

The lifeguard(s) on duty role-play as if a true emergency was transpiring. Their performance is monitored and critiqued by supervisors (Schwebel, Jones, Holder, and Marciani, 2011).

An ‘inverted U’ relationship between the usefulness of unease versus the level of unease. Note that low levels of unease increase the risk of complacency, and excessive levels of unease coupled with the usefulness of unease can induce anxiety. There is an optimum level of unease in promoting usefulness (Fruhen, 2015).

Peer-to-peer experiential learning

Shadowing and the retelling of lifeguard experiences could be further improved by adapting it by session type. Providing supervision alongside a more experienced lifeguard class may help improve joint detection rates and provide a safer environment for pool users. Adjusting shift patterns to facilitate this could be a possible intervention.

Scanning commentary

Providing a scanning commentary similar to that used by driving instructors has enabled the calibration and challenge of incorrect assumptions and beliefs about what drowning casualties look like and how to maintain concentration (Isler et al., 2009).

Feedback about scanning helped the lifeguards in the study by Schwebel, Lindsay, and Simpson (2007), suggesting that feedback may be crucial to keeping lifeguards performing optimally.

The retelling of lifeguard experiences

Reflecting on previous crises and the lessons learnt can strengthen performance in the future and supports the development of resiliency (Weick, 2007). Perceptual training, where the importance of visual cues is stressed, is suggested to be more effective for lifeguards than gaze training (Vansteenkiste et al., 2021).

Protection standards

Research shows that “preferential processing can be modulated through attentional strategy,” which can help manage internal noise (Most et al., 2005, p. 659). According to some authors, a structured gaze strategy is elementary for lifeguards as it reduces the chance that areas are missed (Hunsucker and Davison, 2008; Schwebel, Lindsay, and Simpson, 2007).

Jeff Ellis & Associates, in a 2002 study, suggested lifeguards scan their zone within ten seconds and be able to reach a casualty within twenty seconds. Lifeguard performance should be measured in terms of head mobility as an indication of scanning activity. The approach continues to be integrated into their lifeguarding program. The group have updated the system to include “Sit, Stand, and Stroll” as a response to the five-minute scanning strategy developed by Griffiths (2008). The idea is that active and targetted scanning improves detection rates, an approach proposed by guided search theory.

Five Minute Scanning Strategy

Griffiths (2008) developed the Five Minute Scanning Strategy, in which lifeguards must continuously scan their zone in five-min increments using a particular scanning pattern of their choice followed by a “headcount” of patrons.

Part of some lifeguard training programs includes ways to help manage distraction and stay focused, such as the “Five Minute Scanning Strategy” (Fagan and Griffiths, 2003). The Five Minute Scanning Strategy developed by Griffiths helps manage the challenges of focusing on patrons in the water. The strategy involves moving positions every five minutes, alternating between sitting, standing, and walking, to help combat boredom, fatigue, and other distractions.

Other authors/institutes suggest using a multitude of shapes and figures to scan the aquatic area (Schwebel et al., 2007), and some even developed “scan patterns” specifically to cover 100% of the typical lifeguard zone of responsibility (Hunsucker and Davison, 2008).

Also read about: Swimming Pool Plastering: A Definitive Guide

Triage scanning

Some gaze strategies are rather broad and have suggested that lifeguards should divide their attention between the bottom of the pool, the surface, and the deck (Safe-Wise, 2007; StarGuard, 2012). It is unclear whether this approach leads to more effective detection rates.