Who is The REAL Lifeguard at Your Kid’s Pool This Summer??

Who is the real lifeguardI was doing the usual mom chit-chat at Scouts while my son worked towards his water safety badge and fielded the inevitable question from the Scout leader, ‘what do you do?’. My answer, “I’m a global activist working to end child drowning. One child drowns every minute.” And then came the typical response, “Wow, I didn’t know it was such an issue, but it is certainly needed, the lifeguards need to do a much better job.” She then related a story about how she and her husband were at a pool with their baby and 3-year old son. She was sitting at the side holding the baby, her husband was in another area, and the 3-year old suddenly went past his depth and was bobbing up and down under the water, drowning. She screamed for the lifeguard, her husband screamed for the lifeguard but also managed to get to their son before any serious injury occurred. She related the story in harrowing detail and emphasized several times how the lifeguard had clearly not been doing his job well since her son had almost drowned in a crowded pool, so she understood why drowning is such a problem.

What is your initial reaction? Quite possibly the same as hers, the fault was with the lifeguard, if he had been paying attention her son never would have almost drowned. It’s an incredibly common belief, but the reality is quite different. These are excellent, diligent and concerned parents, and they believe, just as most people believe, that if you go to a pool or beach with a lifeguard on duty, you and your children will be safe. Yes, that’s true, if you swim in an area with a lifeguard, your chance of drowning is reduced to 1 in 18 million. That’s very good odds, even better when you consider that 75% of open water drownings occur when a lifeguard is not present. There is no two ways about it, if you swim in an area with a lifeguard, you are much safer, but it’s not just the lifeguard’s job to keep you safe. I do place the blame for that misconception squarely on the shoulders of those of us in the drowning prevention field, we haven’t explained what the true role of a lifeguard is, so let me start now to change how we view lifeguards.

When it comes to water and children, especially young children or non-swimmers, you, the parent, are the first lifeguard on duty. You need to be touch distance from your young or non-swimmer, meaning you can reach out and grab them at any time. Why?

  • First, a child can drown in 2 minutes in 2 inches of water. Even the best lifeguard, diligently scanning a crowded pool can miss seeing a small child under water, especially if the sun is glinting off the water or there are many people in the pool obscuring visibility under the surface. Plus, most people don’t even recognize someone is drowning since it’s not like in the movies, there is no flailing of arms or screaming. Click here to see what it really looks like – and don’t worry, the boy is rescued.
  • Second, you don’t want your child to be in a situation where they need to be rescued. You know how hard it can be to spot a small child in a crowded place. Even the fastest lifeguard will take precious seconds to spot the danger and make their way to the victim, and that can be a really frightening few seconds for a child.

Lifeguards are like police and firemen, their job is to prevent accidents by watching for dangerous behavior and educating the public, and to perform rescues when things do go wrong, but it’s not their job to babysit or watch just one child, much less the 100 children in the water on a busy summer afternoon. Think about it, you don’t let your 3-year old walk 3 blocks to preschool just because your town has police whose job is to keep people safe, do you? The good news is that having a lifeguard on duty is like having a firefighter stand in your front yard just in case a fire breaks out. 95% of a lifeguard’s job is preventing an accident in the first place and only 5% is actually rescuing someone in distress. With you on guard, hopefully it won’t ever be your child in distress.

Now that you’re thinking, ‘great, so much for relaxing at the pool this summer’, I have some very good news. Taking a baby or young child to the pool is better than having a personal trainer and Weight Watchers combined if you take advantage of the time in the pool with them. Trust me, I worked off two pregnancies swirling my children around in the water. Next month I hope you’ll check back for my tried-and-true ‘fun for kids, great easy workout for mom’ plan!

About the Author

Global water safety for children is my passion and I can't wait to get up every day to work at it! I blog about water safety regularly at http://www.RebeccaWearRobinson.com, or you can follow me on Twitter at RebeccaSaveKids. Rebecca is a former member of the PedSafe Expert team


23 Responses to “Who is The REAL Lifeguard at Your Kid’s Pool This Summer??”

  1. Jason Zajonc says:

    The problem with most life guards is the age and training. They are for the most part young kids with not a lot of care in the world/ there are some amazing life guards and amazing young kids but sometimes they don’t have the experience and training to do what fireman or police do…try this at a pool…go under water and lay at the bottom of the pool and hold your breath and see how long it takes the life guard to respond. That’s a test. Don’t think just cause a guard is there your kid or you is safe…parents need to watch their own kids and even adults need a buddy system.

  2. Great article Rebecca! I hope it is enough to slow the ever increasing number of parents reading on deck at public swim. Or playing cards at the beach. Yes, its family time. Get wet! Get connected! P.S. Let me know an address or P.O. box and I will send along a SKWIM Disk for the summer 🙂 The least i can do for your dedication. Thank you for your great work!! P.S. our 15 year old son Nick is finalizing his Water Safety PowerPoint presentation for health class (interviewed me :)) But could facts I am missing at my fingertips. maybe you can help us.

    1) What are the most current good numbers and opinions (references) on the total global number of drownings annually?
    2) Which countries have the highest published per capita problem?
    3) “525,600 minutes” Is it really one per minute? Is it more?
    4) Do you think the 1 in 4 death by drwoning of all hospitalized water accidents is just here in the USA or global?
    Any other top ten data facts we should consider?


    Coach Kevin

  3. I’m so glad I have my own personal pool this year. It’ll be done in about three days. I know there’ll be no time for napping because I won’t take my eyes off my kids for a second but I’m so over public pools and kids running wild!

  4. Thanks @RonaldterHoeven! Jason, agreed, there are different levels of lifeguards in terms of dedication and training, just as in any profession. Parents do need to be the first line of defense. Kevin – lots of great questions and I think we all want to hear more about SKWIM! The most recent ‘hard’ numbers from the World Health Organization (WHO) are 385,000 and 409,000 deaths, but 59% of WHO countries don’t even record drowning deaths, and those are usually the low- and middle-income countries where 97% of drowning deaths are estimated to occur. The Int’l Lifesaving Federation estimates it’s closer to 1.2 million deaths a year. Everyone – WHO, UNICEF, ILSF – agree that the numbers are hugely understated, so one child per minute is a very, very conservative statement – just over the officially counted number, but well below what the officials believe is the global death toll. Fortunately UNICEF just identified drowning as a hidden global epidemic, and Global Drowning Tracker (www.drowningtracker.com) was introduced by Int’l Surf Lifesaving Association to try to get some better data.

  5. I so agree Julie! We had a pool when my kids were really young and we all LOVED it! I still miss it 🙁 Just make sure you also have a fence around the pool (check out http://www.poolsafely.gov for more info). And think about adopting the one non-negotiable rule I had, ‘no one goes near the pool without mom or dad’. No exceptions, time out and/or loss of best ever privilege if you even come close to the fence/pool. Some moms will disagree with me, but I didn’t sugar-coat this one, my kids asked why and I said, ‘because if you go in the pool without me you will die’. ‘What happens when you die?’ ‘You will never see me (mom) again.’ Forget the philosophical questions, that’s serious enough information for a 1 and 3 year old to really get how serious it is! And don’t worry, they knew that if they were in the pool WITH mom, it was tons of fun!

  6. This is such a great article. I work for a swimming pool management company and we employ over 900 lifeguards seasonally. If you have ever been a lifeguard you know the challenges the guards have watching swimmers in a crowded pool. The more important than training and age is the undivided supervision that you can provide for your child. The lifeguard cannot provide this as they are responsible for everyone. Their time is divided.

  7. laura c says:

    Nice article. Thank you, its nice when the lifeguard is not always the one blamed.

  8. Bob and Laura, I have to admit, knowing what I know now about water safety, every time I go to a pool and see the lifeguards diligently scanning and the parents paying no attention, I feel an overwhelming urge to scan as well. I can tell you from personal experience, it’s hard enough to keep track of two (very good and average) kids in a crowded pool, but at least I’m working at it, tough work for the guards to watch the other 98 kids on a hot summer day.


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