Guide to managing your aquatic risks


Drowning and spinal injuries at swimming pools and aquaticare are some of the most traumatic and costly events any program can face. The trauma is not restricted to the child who is injured or dies, but encompasses the family, lifeguards, facility staff, and community. A death or injury claim involving drowning can result in multi million dollar awards and significant, undesirable media attention.

In June 2002, the World Conference on Drowning Prevention adopted a more appropriate, uniform definition of drowning: “Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid.” Under this definition, drowning is a process that can be interrupted, by rescue for example. This new definition excised the use of the term near-drowning.

The National Safe Kids Campaign estimates 5,000 children ages 14 and under are hospitalized annually as a result of drowning incidents; 15% die in the hospital, and as many as 20% suffer severe, permanent neurological disability. Two factors make a youth program drowning very difficult to defend in court: it’s reasonable to expect the facility to be maintained safely, and it’s reasonable to expect appropriately trained supervisory personnel on the job during swimming activities.

This safety guide discusses the major areas that aquatic managers must address:

  • Principal causes of drowning
  • Staff certification and training
  • Rescue equipment and emergency procedures
  • Communications equipment
  • Facility design
  • Managing visiting groups

Principal causes of drowning

In a controlled environment, after you eliminate the alcohol factor, there are three primary causes of drowning and spinal injuries: unsafe conditions, unsafe acts, and errors in judgment.

Ultimately, responsibility for the health and safety of program participants, visitors, and staff falls on the facility director. The responsibility (liability) of an aquatic program extends beyond the water to the deck or beach area (electrical appliances, glass hazards, inappropriate patron behavior) and into locker rooms and showers (slip hazards and areas for potential sexual molestation). Pool facilities must also provide a safe environment for contractors who come to your site. Falls into unguarded pits in pump rooms, inhalation of powder or gas chlorine, and injuries from slip-and-fall accidents could result in claims against your organization.

Staff certification and training

Staffing qualified lifeguards, and training them to follow your organization’s specific procedures, is the first step toward a successful aquatic program. Aquatic administrators should address two separate areas of training:

  • Lifeguard certification by an outside organization (i.e. American Red Cross, Jeff Ellis, USLA, YMCA)
  • In-service, facility-specific training designed to verify and improve lifeguards’ skills and teamwork

Every aquatic facility should have emergency and operational procedures that address the hazards, activities, and patrons specific to their organization. Due to the variety in quality and content of lifeguard certification programs, aquatic directors should not rely on them as the sole means of staff training. It is advisable to work with an aquatics professional to design an in-service and skills testing program to address your site-specific needs.

Lifeguard certification
Over the past few years, there have been a number of significant course revisions within the American Red Cross and YMCA aquatic programs. Training priorities have changed and some courses have been eliminated or revised. For example, the American Red Cross Head Lifeguard course has been replaced by Lifeguard Management. The American Camp Association provides a comprehensive listing of certifications that meet specific ACA standards. The below chart describes courses offered by major lifeguard training organizations:

Lifeguard management courses
The American Red Cross, Ellis and Associates, and YMCA have provided Lifeguard Management courses for several years. The courses are designed for people who supervise lifeguards, and cover topics such as selecting and training lifeguards, inspecting facilities, and managing an aquatics program.

The training is recommended not only for those who have direct supervisory responsibilities for lifeguards, but also for people who have overall responsibilities for lifeguards. The American Red Cross Lifeguard Management course is class-room only (no in-water elements) and has no precourse skills requirements. Any currently certified Lifeguard Instructor can teach the course.

Markel recommends that at least one facility member becomes certified in Lifeguard Management or has documented training to the equivalent level. Documentation should be from a third party (i.e. a college transcript or letter from a professor indicating they worked at the pool on campus). That person should also be at least 21 years old, and have a minimum of six weeks of experience in a management/supervisory position in a similar aquatics program.

See Appendix B for additional courses available to lifeguards.

In-service training
If your lifeguards received training from several different organizations, your in-service training becomes even more critical for consistent responses and teamwork.

The following lists the skills that you can incorporate into your in-service training program, depending on your organization’s activities, equipment, and conditions:

  • Bag-valve mask and oxygen therapy.
  • Aquatics programs should work with local EMS to determine the best course of action for spinal with a lifejacket.  For open water programs it may not be in the best interest of the victim to first get them to shore and then board.
  • Submerged victim search patterns for zones of coverage to take place in under three minutes (longer than that and lifeguards are doing body recoveries, not rescues).
  • Rescue breathing in deep- and shallow-water conditions.
  • Stabilizing a fractured leg in deep water from a water skiing injury.
  • Retrieval of a weight representative of a 180-pound person in 12 feet of water.
  • Submerged victim search with the use of fins and face mask.
  • Victim retrieval practice with a rescue board or other rescue device.
  • Multiple victim retrieval practice (simulated lightning strike).
  • Unruly patron intervention.
  • Retrieving multiple boats blown by the wind.
  • Seizure victim stabilization.
  • Allergic reaction simulation.
  • Hostile visitor simulation.
  • Whole rescue simulations, not just the rescue itself.
  • Emergency and reporting procedures.
  • Scanning and zone coverage skills.
  • Victim recognition.
  • Decision making and problem solving scenarios.
  • Guarding individuals with disabilities.
  • Communicating in common terms in language commonly used.

Scenarios should include rescue through resuscitation. Often times aquatic facilities will perform the specific rescue but not think about pulse-non-breather.

The YMCA recommends at least two hours of in-service training per month during high season, and at least one hour at other times of the year. Additional time would be needed for facilities that have play elements or open water, as these require special procedures. Ellis and Associates mandates in-service training four hours per month for full-time employees,and one hour per month or four hours per quarter for part-time employees. USLA requires providing lifeguard time for daily workouts to maintain physical fitness and stamina, recommends monthly drills involving mock rescues and other emergencies for all employees, and requires a minimum 16 hours per year in rescue skills refresher training.

It is highly recommended that lifeguards actually get in the water to workout, swim laps and practice swimming skills. In camps with big bodies of water, this is especially important not only due to the wind and wave action, but also distance as well as temperature of the water. An 82 degree pool is very different than the 75 degree lake in the morning.

Pre-employment screenings
To ensure your facility hires properly trained lifeguards who are physically able to provide rescue services, conduct the following pre-employment screenings:

Check certification records. During the application process, it’s essential to check with the certifying agency to verify that your facility’s lifeguards have completed formal training.

Conduct a physical screening. Conducting a physical screening of lifeguards provides your organization with necessary information on whether a lifeguard will be able to perform all the essential functions of the job. Most importantly, it helps you determine any physical limitations that might impact the lifeguard’s performance of lifesaving duties.

Conduct a vision screening. If lifeguards cannot see clearly without corrective eye wear, they must have that eye wear with them to perform their jobs. Some programs have accommodated lifeguards who wear contact lenses by providing eye goggles. Other programs, such as those operating in open-surf conditions, have determined that contact lenses are a job disqualification because they are likely to be dislodged in turbulent surf conditions, even with the use of goggles. Job disqualification for the use of corrective eye wear is a site and condition specific consideration that needs careful study and even legal advice. The bottom line is that if lifeguards can’t see the victim, they can’t perform their jobs properly, and the chance of a successful rescue diminishes.

Offer the Hepatitis B vaccination. Aquatic directors should be aware that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires your organization to offer lifeguards, in writing, the Hepatitis B vaccination series. Although lifeguards may initially refuse the vaccination, they may change their minds (while still in your employ) or request it following a blood-borne pathogen exposure.

Faster response time saves lives
Rapid response time is critical if a youth is to make a full recovery after a drowning incident. Most CPR classes state that brain damage does not begin until a youth has been without oxygen (underwater) for about four to six minutes.

Make sure your lifeguard training focuses on quick response times and searching large areas quickly. In cloudy water lakes, provide swim fins and face masks to facilitate search efforts, and train lifeguards in their use.

Opening and clearing airways
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of opening, and if possible, clearing the airway of drowning victims. Simply opening the airway when the victim’s mouth is above water often results in spontaneous respirations.

There are some fundamental differences between the American Red Cross, YMCA, Jeff Ellis, and USLA airway clearing training. American Red Cross lifeguards are taught to bring the victim out of the water onto a backboard or side of the pool before beginning rescue breathing and CPR. USLA, Jeff Ellis, and YMCA lifeguards are taught to try to establish an airway as soon as possible, even in the water. It’s important that aquatic directors understand the airway-clearing protocols their lifeguards were taught, especially when lifeguards received training through several different organizations, and match lifeguard training to their organization’s facilities and activities.

If your aquatics program operates at a lake with a large swim area, speak with your lifeguard training agency about which airway-clearing protocols to use in your specific situation.

Keeping lifeguards alert
Many factors can contribute to lifeguard fatigue, including noise, amount of time spent in the sun, high temperatures, amount of water consumed, sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption, monotony, and medications prescribed. Studies have shown that fatigue can reduce peripheral vision by as much as 30%. Combine that with a lack of vigilance and you have a deadly combination for almost any activity.To keep lifeguards alert, Markel advises 20- to 30-minute rotation schedules and a body position change (stand, sit, or kneel on one knee) every 5 to 10 minutes. Lifeguards must also be positioned so that they can clearly see 100% of their zone of coverage. Chairs set back from the edge of the pool create blind spots in front of the lifeguard. Provide lifeguards with shade and clothing that reduces the effects of sun exposure. Sunglasses are essential to reduce eye fatigue and protect eyes. Polarized sunglasses are highly recommended, as they greatly reduce the effects of glare.

Rescue equipment and emergency procedures

Rescue tubes and buoys
Rescue tubes. Because rescue tubes are subject to ultraviolet light and chlorine damage, there have been numerous occasions when an old rescue tube has split during a rescue. Storing rescue tubes in the pump room, where they are subject to chlorine vapors, or leaving the tubes on the lifeguard stand will significantly reduce their life expectancy. If the vinyl is cracked or damaged, the strap is threadbare, or the metal strap connector is corroded, it’s time to replace the tube.

Inflatable rescue tubes. There are a number of situations, such as wilderness trips or unapproved aquatic side trips, where a rescue tube is unavailable. For these trips, inflatable rescue tubes are an excellent option. They’re easy to transport, lightweight, and inflate quickly with a CO2 cylinder (even under extreme heat conditions, approved CO2 cylinders will not explode). For underwater recovery, it may be easier to grab the body and inflate the device for lift rather than pulling a buoyant rescue tube underwater. Practice this skill in an open water environment before you actually go on a trip.

Rescue buoys.
Rescue buoys are hard plastic rescue devices primarily used by surf lifeguards. Inspect these devices periodically to ensure the nylon straps have not corroded or worn out, which will compromise the buoy’s effectiveness.

Most aquatic programs use commercially made plastic backboards. If your facility uses handmade plywood backboards,replace them immediately with plastic backboards. Plywood boards are very difficult to sterilize thoroughly, and some won’t fit into helicopters if the victim needs to be airlifted. The best backboards for aquatic use are floating backboards, which are available from several manufacturers. A lifeguard can swim the backboard to the victim or deploy it from a rescue boat. These backboards will not fully float the victim, but will provide buoyancy.

Backboard straps and restraints
There are a variety of different types of straps used on backboards. Many programs use spider straps with Velcro attachments. If the staff has practiced sufficiently, spider straps are very easy and quick to use. If they have not practiced, spider straps can be time consuming, improperly placed, and fail to secure the victim in position. Over time, the Velcro often loses its ability to hold together, particularly when wet. Train staff to alert the director when spider straps need to be replaced.

Seatbelt straps on backboards have their own set of problems. Because they are usually semi-permanent attachments to the backboard, they may line up inappropriately on the victim’s body for proper stabilization. This is especially true for very large or very small victims. It is recommended that if a seatbelt strap is sued, the buckle/clasp across the chest needs to be offset away from the sternum to allow CPR. Seatbelt clasps can also rust and corrode quickly.

Another problem frequently encountered with backboard restraints is the Velcro wearing out on the head stabilization pads. Often, the Velcro is much less effective in the water than when dry. Your staff in-service practices may be the only indicator that the head stabilization pads are ineffective and could compromise the victim’s spine. A rolled towel is a good temporary substitute if the aquatic staff finds the head stabilization unit to be ineffective, but the best solution is to buy a new head stabilization unit.

American Red Cross lifeguard courses no longer teach the use of cervical collars while back boarding; however, YMCA lifeguard courses continue to teach the skill but stress the need for in-service practice. Application of a cervical collar requires practice and teamwork. Without proper training, lifeguards may inadvertently compound the injury by twisting the victim’s spine or failing to support the airway. Markel strongly encourages you to evaluate the risks of having a policy for applying a cervical collar as opposed to maintaining a stabilized head until EMS personnel can take over. If you decide to train staff to apply a cervical collar, seek professional assistance from your local rescue squad.

Throw ropes and inflatable rescue tubes
Throw ropes are one of the best pieces of rescue equipment available in remote aquatic environments or on canoe and kayak trips. Used properly, they can extend the reach of rescuers up to 50 feet or more in environments that make swimming rescues difficult or hazardous. When using throw ropes,there are several important issues to consider:

  • Throw ropes only work with conscious victims who can grab the rope.
  • If the rope is tangled in the throw bag, the rescuer is left with a time-consuming mess and the victim is still in trouble.
  • Consistent accuracy with a throw bag takes practice, practice, and more practice. A rope floating in the water 10 feet from the victim does no good.
  • Successful use of a throw rope is frequently a factor of the rescuer being ready to use it. There are a number of professional courses, such as Swift Water Rescue, that are excellent for teaching staff to use a throw rope in a variety of situations. This knowledge is not limited to white water rivers, but could also be applied to groups swimming in remote locations where a rescue tube is not available.

First aid kits
First aid kits are frequently neglected. Supplies are used and not replaced, or there are insufficient supplies to handle a serious trauma, such as an impact with a diving board. The following is a list of minimum suggested first aid supplies for aquatic facilities:


AEDs and oxygen delivery

Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) are portable units used to electrically stimulate the heart during sudden cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest has been reported in youth programs for a variety of reasons, such as a congenital heart defect, electrical shock, a blow to the chest during a fight, or being hit with a baseball.

Anyone attending your aquatic facilities could have a sudden cardiac arrest unrelated to drowning. Therefore an AED may be critical.

Drowning results in suffocation, which eventually results in failure of the heart muscle to continue beating. Establishing an airway and rescue breathing is critical in these situations.

Although AEDs may be expensive, talk to your regional American Heart Association or American Red Cross to see if they know of a funding source in your region. Also, make sure you add your AED to your insurance policy in case of theft or vandalism.

Some aquatic administrators may think they don’t need AEDs because of their facility’s close proximity to a rescue station. The American Heart Association says that when a person suffers a sudden cardiac arrest, their chances of survival decrease by up to 10% for every minute that passes without defibrillation. At most facilities, the absolute minimum time between the occurrence of a cardiac arrest and the arrival of an ambulance is at least five to ten minutes.

You should obtain advice from legal counsel and research your state and local regulations that might affect your program, including training requirements, medical control, notification of AED use, location, and immunity provisions.

Oxygen delivery
Increasing oxygen delivery in rescue breathing can reduce brain and cardiac damage, so it is important to provide the electrical stimulus from the AED in conjunction with oxygen.

The International Life Saving Federation (ILSF) takes the following position on oxygen delivery: “The physiological benefit of providing oxygen to spontaneously breathing drowning victims or during CPR in drowning victims in respiratory arrest is clear and advocates that oxygen should be used in all drowning victims.”

The ILSF recommends using reliable oxygen equipment that is simple to assemble and operate. They recommend a non-rebreathing mask with a fixed flow of 15 liters of oxygen per minute for spontaneously breathing victims, and a bag-valve mask with oxygen inlet for patients in ventilatory arrest. Make sure the oxygen container is large enough to allow oxygen delivery until professional medical personnel arrive on the scene. Protect your staff and satisfy OSHA requirements by adding non-latex gloves and a blood-borne pathogen kit to your AED.

Proper use of a bag-valve mask and portable oxygen requires practice. This would be a good in-service skill to practice with your staff, including interaction with EMS. Handling and storing oxygen safely requires special care. Although oxygen does not burn, it will fuel fires and cause them to burn hotter and faster. Keep the area surrounding the oxygen cylinder clear of electrical devices, flammable items, or hazards that might cause sparks, damage, or deterioration. If a fire occurs, alert fire fighters to the presence of the cylinders.

Refill oxygen bottles before they reach a residual pressure of less than 200 p.s.i. If the response time for your rescue squad is more than five minutes, you may wish to increase your residual pressure requirements. Use the following formula to calculate the remaining useful oxygen to determine if your aquatic facility has enough oxygen to maintain until EMS arrives:

(Gauge Pressure minus Safe Residual Pressure) times Cylinder Factor divided by Flow Rate
The following are factors for some of the common cylinder types:

Type Capacity Factor
D 400 liters 0.16
E 625 liters 0.28
H, K 6900 liters 3.14
M 3450 liters 1.56
Try it out: At your waterfront, you have a small, D cylinder oxygen tank with gauge pressure of 800 p.s.i. The flow meter is set to deliver 15 liters of oxygen per minute. How long will it last?

Answer: 6.4 minutes

Solution: (800 minus 200) times 0.16) divided by 15 = 6.4

Personal flotation devices (PFDs)

The CDC reports that according to the United States Coast Guard, almost 75% of all persons killed in boating incidents in 2007 drowned. Of those, 84% were not wearing a life jacket.

There are five types of PFDs, each constructed to specific design requirements listed in U.S. Coast Guard Specification 46 CFR Subpart 160. The use of life jackets saves many lives each year, especially in boating accidents.

Type I—Off-shore life jacket: These devices are designed to turn an unconscious person to a vertical or slightly backward position. They have more than 20 pounds of positive buoyancy, and are frequently designed with high collars and floatation high on the torso.

Type II—Near-shore buoyant vest: Usually less bulky than the Type I PFDs, these devices have a minimum floatation of 15.5 pounds and are also designed to right an unconscious person. They are not as well secured to the body and therefore are suitable only in relatively calm inland waters.

Type III—Floatation aid: Less bulky and more comfortable, these PFDs will not right the user from a face-down position. They have a minimum of 15.5 pounds of floatation. This is the most common PFD used for canoing, kayaking, and lake sailing.

Type IV—Throwable device: These devices are meant to be thrown to someone in the water. They are not to be worn, but rather held to the chest for immediate assistance. Canoes and kayaks are exempt from requiring throwable devices, but all other vessels greater than 16 feet must have at least one on board. Examples are a commercial life ring buoy, buoyant cushions, and throwable devices.

Type V—Special use device: These are wearable devices approved only for certain activities as described on the attached label. Examples include sail board harness PFDs, inflatable vests, commercial white-water rafting vests, and hybrid PFDs.

Communications equipment

Many states mandate the presence of telephones at swimming pools. Most states have not specified whether cell phones are adequate, and concrete walls of indoor pool buildings may compromise cellular reception. At larger aquatic facilities and at many lake operations, walkie-talkies have proven to be very effective at communication within the facility, but they can’t directly communicate with EMS.

Horns and whistles: These devices are often the communications equipment of choice for lifeguards and aquatic staff. Most aquatic programs develop their own communications signals. Make sure to explain these signals to all participants during your swimmer orientation program. Reliable communication methods are critical to keeping lifeguards and patrons aware of potentially unsafe circumstances and dispatching lifeguards to emergencies. As the size of your facility increases, the need for reliable communication methods becomes ever greater, because lifeguards may be too far from each other to speak clearly or even see each other. While some boats have horns (i.e. ski boats) it is always recommended that a backup be carried, in the event the horn doesn’t work; especially if they are across the lake.

Canoes and kayaks: These craft have their own communication system with paddle or arm positions. The American Canoe Association offers courses and publications on this form of communication.

Lightning-warning systems: Some aquatic programs, particularly those in coastal areas or locations known for sudden lightning storms, have added lightning-warning systems connected to a horn. Lightning can be very dangerous to indoor pools as well. Lightning can travel through windows or an open door, and the electrical current could pass through the ground to piping or cables that go into your pool or locker rooms. All programs should have specific plans for quickly evacuating the waterfront or pool in the event of lightning.

Weather boards: Many programs post a weather board at the entrance to their aquatic areas that is updated daily with the expected weather conditions. This is a great method to communicate to staff and participants about potential inclement weather, as well as to indicate when additional sunscreen should be applied.

Facility design

While the majority of drowning incidents at youth recreation programs are directly related to lack of supervision, the design and shape of the pool can create blind spots for lifeguards. Facility design or layout of your swimming area on a lake or open water setting also contributes to spinal injuries. Shallow-water dives make up the majority of the spinal injuries, fol-lowed by an insufficient distance from the end of the diving board to the slope of the diving well, followed by horseplay.

Most states require you to post No Diving signs and water depths on the deck of the pool or lake pier. Some states require you to post the water depths on the side of the pool above the water line. It’s a good risk management practice to do both. Make sure you indicate the unit of measure (feet or meters) for water depth. A pictogram for the No Diving sign is also a good idea for those who can’t read or don’t read English.

All aquatic areas should have signage posted detailing the rules for use. Many states have specific regulations about not only the wording of various rules, but also the specific font size, contrasting colors, and language.

All pools and lake swimming areas should have a safety-float rope separating the deep end from the shallow area. State regulations vary on the water depth, but most regulations fall around 4 feet 6 inches. There is no magic depth that is safe for swimmers. Lifeguards should be aware that many drowning incidents occur in water 4 to 6 feet deep—the child bounces on his toes with his nose in the air, and the lifeguard fails to recognize that the child is in danger. A key indicator that lifeguards should always watch for is a swimmer’s ability to make forward progress in the water.

Slides can be a great attraction for aquatic areas. They can also be a huge liability if installed improperly or designed poorly. Markel recommends:

  • Slide should exit into at water at least 4 feet deep.
  • Slide exit should be horizontal to the water and no more than 18 inches above the water.
  • Slide ladders should have handrails.
  • Ladders should have a non-skid rubber mat at their base out to a minimum distance of 8 feet, particularly over concrete decks.
  • Slide sides should be designed to permit exit at the bottom of the slide only.
  • A lifeguard should be specifically dedicated to the slide

Blobs, water tramps, and other floating activities
Blobs are a unique and fun activity at many camps. They also offer the potential for a wide number of injuries. Markel advises the following safety practices for blobs:

  • Enforce a maximum 25-pound weight difference between participants.
  • Blob only one person at a time.
  • Ensure there are two lifeguards supervising at all times, one on the platform and one stationed in the water in a canoe, kayak, or rescue boat.
  • Ensure lifeguards have 360-degree visibility around the blob.
  • Require participants to wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices (PFDs).
  • Do not allow swimming beneath the blob.
  • Post the rules in a prominent place.
  • Create a barrier to prevent access to an unsupervised blob.
  • Use steps to access the platform—they’re safer than a ladder

Water trampolines
Water trampolines have many of the same safety issues as blobs. Participants should wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets. Because it’s nearly impossible for a single lifeguard to have 360-degree visibility around the trampoline, two life-guards are advisable. The area beneath the trampoline can pose a significant danger if a camper swims beneath while someone is bouncing. The most common injuries for this activity are fractures and contusions from two participants hitting each other. There should only be one bouncer at a time.

Competitive race starting platforms
Starting platforms for competitive racing have also contributed to a number of shallow-water dive injuries. There are five different sets of standards for the water depth used with starting blocks, in addition to state or local regulations. A general rule of thumb is that the more stringent rule applies.

For most youth recreation programs, Markel advises the YMCA standard for starting blocks. Most programs have moved starting blocks to the deep end of the pool.

Diving boards
A study of diving board traumas conducted by Dr. M. Alexander Gabrielsen and Mary Spivey found that every neck trauma resulting from a 3-meter board occurred at the up-slope of the diving well. None of the injured divers struck the bottom of the pool at the pool’s maximum water depth. This study helps to explain why many insurance companies recommend the removal of diving boards. Although the depth directly beneath the board may be adequate, the slope of the diving well may be too close for a diver performing an arched dive.

Markel suggests that all 1-meter boards have a minimum water depth of 10 feet out to a distance of at least 16 feet from the end of the board to the beginning slope of the diving well. The YMCA requires a minimum depth of 11.5 feet for 1-meter boards. For 3-meter boards, the water depth should be a minimum of 12 feet out to a distance of 18 feet from the end of the board to the beginning slope of the diving well.

For 1-meter and 3-meter competitive boards, a minimum depth of 12 feet in front of the board is recommended and 13 feet preferred, with this depth carried forward a minimum of 20 feet from the edge of the board.

Managing visiting groups

Should you allow a visiting group to swim in your pool or lake, or use your boats without your qualified lifeguard present? Absolutely not. Pools are viewed as attractive nuisances,and the host program (camp, school, club, conference center) can easily be held responsible for any injuries or deaths. An outdoor pool is potentially dangerous in ways that many directors never consider. For instance, many youth roller blade or skateboard and would like access to an empty pool.

What if the visiting group wants to bring its own lifeguard? Legally, this is a complicated issue because the answer will vary according to the laws, statutes, and legal precedents set in each state. The legal concept is referred to as negligence per se, which means that if a program violates a statute/law/regulation, the program is negligent. Some states specifically prohibit the use of a pool without a lifeguard provided by the owner. Asking a visiting group to sign waivers or release forms is of little value in these states. The host program cannot transfer the responsibility for the safety of the group at a pool (and probably a lake) facility. Here are two options for a visiting group wishing to swim at your facility:

  • Any lifeguards with the visiting group would serve as extra spotters, not lifeguards. The host program takes full responsibility for the visiting group.
  • The visiting group respects the host program’s liability concerns and does not swim at the host facility.

Groups that have access to canoes and other boats must also have access to the life jackets. If you don’t want groups to have access to the equipment, lock it up. This includes ALL equipment and not just the paddles and PFD’s.

Swimming at other facilities
If your organization takes groups to the local YMCA or community pool, you still have some liability. Depending on how frequently your organization uses the community pool, you might ask the pool director to add your facility and staff as additional insureds to their insurance policy. Also, ask your attorney about other methods that might protect your organization. Ask parents to sign informed consent forms, which include a release of liability.

It can be a difficult subject to talk about, but providing for the safety of your staff and patrons extends beyond preventing injuries and mishaps.  It is also about protecting them from inappropriate behavior and abuse-whether bullying, physical abuse, sexual abuse or any other kind of harmful act.

The good thing is you will not be alone in this effort.  For starters, your facility shares this responsibility, in part by ensuring that the staff hired meets the requirements put in place for the protection of the public.  If you as the lifeguard manager are responsible for hiring staff other than your lifeguard team, you need to know and adhere to these criteria, too. Anyone involved with the facility may be required to undergo the following:

  • Background checks, which involve checking for criminal history or searching for criminal records.  These checks have become a standard practice in the sports industry and are a must for anyone having frequent and direct interaction with the public, especially young people.
  • Pre-employment screening involving thorough hiring practices, often including the following:
    • Review and check of past employment references.
    • Verification of the highest level of education completed.
    • Evaluation of a state motor vehicle report.

This "document” is intended for general information purposes and should not be construed as advice or opinions on any specific facts or circumstances. The content of this document is made available on an “as is” basis, without warranty of any kind. This document cannot be assumed to contain every acceptable safety and compliance procedure or that additional procedures might not be appropriate under the circumstances. Markel does not guarantee that this information is or can be relied on for compliance with any law or regulation, assurance against preventable losses, or freedom from legal liability. This publication is not intended to be legal, underwriting, or any other type of professional or technical advice. Persons requiring advice should consult an independent adviser or trained professional. Markel does not guarantee any particular outcome and makes no commitment to update any information herein, or remove any items that are no longer accurate or complete. Furthermore, Markel does not assume any liability to any person or organization for loss or damage caused by or resulting from any reliance placed on this content.

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