Are Lifeguards Worth the Cost?

This is a very good question and one that I would encourage facility managers to carefully consider.  Nevada State Law generally does not require most pools to have Lifeguards on duty if the pool does not exceed 80% of maximum capacity.  With that in mind it can be very tempting to save money by eliminating lifeguard services for your pool.  Any good facility manager will weigh the costs and benefits of any endeavor, especially in our economic climate.

However, there are several reasons why lifeguards are worth the costs involved.  In this article I’ll try to quickly go over the way in which individuals drown, statistics for lifeguard effectiveness, and a couple of case studies of entities that decided to go without lifeguards.

How Do People Drown?

I have seen many pools employ “pool monitors” who keep a casual eye on pools to ensure nobody is drowning and to act accordingly.  The problem with such monitors is that they usually have several other jobs to attend to, such as checking in guests, cleaning restrooms, folding towels, and several other duties that distract them from looking after the well-being of swimmers.  In addition many times these pool monitors won’t even be directly in the pool area, but separated from it by a glass window, cutting off the sense of hearing in the case of an emergency.

The problem with such an approach is that a common misconception of drowning swimmers is that they are able to keep their heads above the water for long periods of time waving their arms frantically and screaming for help.  This is a misconception that is often cemented in our minds because that is how television shows and movies show drownings for dramatic effect.

In reality, observational reports show that it can take as little as 20 seconds for a struggling swimmer’s head to go underwater.  Unless a pool is directly supervised by a trained lifeguard who is not assigned any distracting duties to their job a casual “pool monitor” or observer could very easily miss a drowning, and once an individual is fully submerged it is much harder to spot them at the bottom of the pool than it is when they are swimming at the surface.

Are Lifeguards Really Effective?

Here is where we get into the statistical analysis.  Without getting too deep into the numbers, I’ll first summarize that question by saying that properly trained lifeguards are extremely effective at preventing drownings.

Drowning is the second leading cause of death for children ages 1 – 14. Overall there are approximately 4,000 drowning deaths per year in the United States.  The good news, however, is that since 1981 even though there are twice as many people enjoying water related activities, drownings have decreased by 33%, due largely in part to better training of lifeguards and a greater lifeguard presence at pools and beaches.

However, the statistic that should sway anyone into thinking that lifeguards are, indeed, very effective is this: Of the total drowning deaths per year, those that occur under lifeguard supervision account for less than 1%.

Some Case Studies For the Use of Lifeguards

American Beach (Nassau County), Florida: In 1989 the Nassau County Commission decided to eliminate lifeguards on American  Beach in order to save county expenses. Less than a year later on Memorial Day, 1990, five persons drowned and 20 others nearly drowned when rough ocean conditions and strong winds caused rip currents to form immediately offshore, making this one of the worst drowning episodes in Florida’s history. Shortly after this tragedy, local officials reestablished lifeguarding services. No one has drowned since.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California: Ocean Beach covers more than five miles of the Pacific shore in the City and County of San Francisco. Rip currents are common in the water off this beach. The beach is administered by the U.S. National Park Service and is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). Until the early 1990s, GGNRA provided lifeguards at several beaches in the region, including Stinson Beach, China Beach, and Aquatic Park near 6 Lifeguard Effectiveness: A Report of the Working Group Fisherman’s Wharf, with occasional patrols and emergency response to Ocean Beach. As a result of budgetary concerns, lifeguards for Aquatic Park, China Beach, and Ocean Beach were gradually removed in the early 1990s. However, the beach-going public continued to swim at Ocean Beach, and drownings continued to occur, despite the development of an aquatic response team by the San Francisco Fire Department, which accomplished a number of rescues. During the late spring and early summer of 1998, there were seven drownings at Ocean Beach, which exceeded the previous six-year total. These drownings generated extensive media attention and resulted in calls by several major groups and prominent individuals for lifeguard protection. GGNRA consulted with USLA to develop a plan to employ, train, and deploy aquatic rescue personnel at Ocean Beach. On-site lifeguard services began before the summer of 1999, and since that time, no drownings have occurred at Ocean Beach.

A Summary

It is pretty much a no-brainer that lifeguards are effective at preventing drownings and saving lives.  Of course, as a facility manager there is still the question of whether the cost is worth the benefits of having a safer pool environment for your members and guests.  There are different ways to count the cost to your organization if a drowning occurs in your pool.  There are real costs, such as litigation and settlements.  But there are also less defined costs, such as a blow to your organization’s reputation.  But there are also real costs to the victims of drownings and near drownings.  Medicals costs for a near drowning can range from $75,000 for initial treatment to $180,000 per year for long-term treatment if brain injury occurs.  Even if such costs aren’t borne by your organization, you still owe it to your members and guests to provide the peace of mind that they can enjoy your pool safely!