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  • Selena Willows

But there is a lifeguard on duty -Why you can't completely trust lifeguards to keep your child safe.

Whether you are going away somewhere hot by the beach or headed to the local pool there are some things you need to know in order to keep the future - your children - safe...regardless of whether or not there is a lifeguard on duty.

Can't we trust the Lifeguard?

Well, yes and at the very same time, no.

Yes, lifeguards are trained, and lifeguards are supposed to renew their certifications every two years as well as have ongoing team training BUT there is some reality we need to remember with this.

Several years ago, I was at the pool with my eldest, and at the time only child. We were playing in the water next to a bunch of other people during an open swim situation at the community pool. The other children were around kindergarten aged - older than my fifteen month old - so parents were sitting in the bleachers chatting while the kids blew off some steam. What a great way to tire out the kids and get some much needed social time in. Personally, anytime I can get the kids moving and I can chat with friends, I'm in - but then something happened...

I noticed one of the children bobbing up and down, she had a look of panic in her eyes and was staring blankly upwards. Not at anything in particular, just looking up. She wasn't calling for help or making any noise at all. In fact, bouncing up and down like that, it might have looked like she was just playing. She was jumping up and down in the water as were her friends except she had wandered farther than she could reach and not only was she getting tired - as was the purpose of the outing - she had panicked and was now in distress. Recipe for disaster.

As a former lifeguard and a parent I knew immediately what I had to do, what I would want any parent to do for my child. With my feet firmly planted on the bottom of the pool and my son tight against my hip, I wrapped my other arm around the girl's chest from behind, under her arms, and pulled her out of the water.

As I walked her to the side of the pool she began to cry. By this point her father and the lifeguard had noticed something was up. The lifeguard signaled for another staff member to come over so as not to leave his post - excellent response - and dad and the other lifeguard came over.

Since we knew that she had not been submerged - underwater - for an extended period as she had still been at the bobbing stage - bouncing up and down - the young lifeguard and I gave dad some directions as to what to watch for in the coming 24 hours in order to avoid secondary drowning – don’t worry, there is a post about this coming as well. After a short rest Sarah got back in the water and played for another 15 minutes, so as not to develop a fear, and then headed home for supervised rest.

Unfortunately, I have several stories like this.

What went wrong? Well, it was kind of a perfect storm.

Could the lifeguard have been more vigilant? Maybe. Could dad have been paying closer attention and been closer to the pool? Sure but it may not have made a difference. So what then?

In any situation there are a number of things that can make for the perfect storm and the next thing you know, you are dealing with a water safety incident, or accident.

YOU NEED to know how to prevent this. YOU NEED to know how to spot it and save your child's life.

What do we need to keep in mind?

There isn't always an ex-lifeguard/washed up competitive swimmer nearby to take notice and pluck your child out of the water when necessary.

Lifeguard certifications in the US and Canada can be received as young as 15.

I was 15 the first time I was told to sit up on the chair and asked to make sure no one in the pool drowned during my shift. I'm not saying I didn't have the proper training or knowledge to do what it takes. I did and do and have used it many times however, lifeguards are human, myself included. Mistakes and errors happen and unfortunately at 15 our prefrontal cortex - the decision making part of our brain - is not yet fully developed. That means that no amount of training will ensure a 15 year old, or any other person, can determine and process the potential drowning of a child in less than 20 seconds all the time, every time.

Fifteen is young; do you remember being 15? I was THE SHIT at 15. I had it all together and knew everything. Now I know nothing except that I have a lot of trouble leaving my kids with a 15 year old babysitter, let alone trusting them to supervise MY children in the pool.

Lifeguards also suffer from decisional fatigue. They are constantly making determinations - or should be - about the status of a person in the water. They are constantly making a decision as to whether the person is safe or in need of assistance. This constant decision making - to the tune of several snap judgements a second - is overwhelming to an adult. With the ability to make fully fleshed out decisions already being limited in the teen-aged brain, this can be exacerbated in a busy pool to - literally - life altering proportions.

I'm not trained, how can I keep my child safe?

There are many other factors at play when it comes to lifeguards, and I promise I will cover them in future blog posts. I know you want know how to keep your kids as safe as you can, so I will leave you with a short list of things you can do the next time you are going to the water.

Did you know that it only takes 20 seconds for a child to stop fighting when they are drowning? I know, I know, you've heard me say it before and I will likely tell you again. This means that in 20 short seconds, that child's brain has stopped trying to get air and has stopped telling the body to move. In two minutes they are no longer breathing and in three to five minutes they have suffered irreversible brain damage.

Are these frightening statistics? They absolutely they are, but you NEED to know this. This and other facts are not there to scare us, but rather to teach us how to to protect our children and I'm going to teach you everything I know.

Before I do that, I want to share with you some of the most important things to look for when you are at a pool party / community pool type event.

1- Make sure your child is familiar with the pool - Make sure you show them where they can reach and where they can't. Make sure they know where the benches and stairs are and how to get out of the pool in case they need to.

2- Get in the pool with your children - This is the safest as you can stay at arms reach and fully engaged BUT I get it, we don't always want to. So have a seat nearby or keep your feet in the water - you may have to ask the lifeguard if there is a good place for you to be so as not to be in the way.

3- Sit facing the pool - you can chat the way lifeguards are taught to chat. With two eyes on your children.

4- Teach your child to always make sure they can see you - If they can't see you then you can't see them.

5- Have your child wear a very bright bathing suit - light colors like white, lavender, baby pink, baby blue, all disappear in the bottom of a pool as do very dark colours like black and navy, due to the shadows. Greens and blues are often the same color as the water, or the bottom of the pool, and as such can also be very difficult to spot. Make the lifeguard's job easier and your child easier to spot when they are not paying attention to stay within eyesight by putting them in a bright pink or orange suit. Sure, you aren't left with a lot of options but you can keep that cute baby blue frilly one for a pool visit with at a quieter time.

Do you want to know more about keeping your children safe around water? Make sure you are on our mailing list so you know when I release the partner article to this one - The Properly Trained Lifeguard and many more including articles on what it looks like when a child is in distress.

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