Safe Swimming Beaches Provide Reduced Risks and Increased Enjoyment

By Kerry Mucher

It only takes a second for someone to drown. This is a thought that is most likely on the mind of each and every waterfront director and/or beach manager as we approach the swimming season.

The goal of any swim beach should be to increase enjoyment by visitors and reduce the risks and hazards often associated with beaches and lakes. At New Hampshire Local Government Center’s Safe Swimming Beaches: How to Manage and Operate Them workshop held in Concord on April 1, keynote speaker Dr. Tom Griffiths outlined recommendations on how to make your swim areas more enjoyable and safe this summer. The following information is a summary of suggestions from Griffiths, who serves as Director of Aquatics and Safety Officer at Penn State University and is the author of Better Beaches.

Lifeguard Training

Providing lifeguards is one of the best ways of making swim beaches safer and more enjoyable. If you choose to guard your beach, make sure that the lifeguards you hire are trained according to established national standards, skill-tested, supervised and receive additional training while on duty. National standards require that lifeguards receive four hours of training every month they are on duty, so make sure you give your guards a break. Griffiths suggests that lifeguards should have a break from surveillance every hour—rotating them to a different task that is not surveillance related.

Guard your group functions. According to Griffiths, “One-third of all drownings occur at group functions or birthday parties." Make sure your beach has a group use policy in place so that large groups are not permitted to show up unannounced. One of the main problems that occur when groups arrive without warning is that the adults in the group assume the lifeguards are watching the children and lifeguards assume the adults are watching the children and, as a result, no one is watching.

Guard your swim lessons and water-based activities. It is recommended that a lifeguard be on duty during all swim lessons and/or any water-based activities or events offered at your swim beach. The lifeguard should not serve as the teacher or instructor; rather, they should be supervising the water.

When lifeguards are not provided, an assertive warning and education campaign should be initiated with clear, concise and informative signage. Griffiths recommends placing signage in the parking lot, at the access point where swimmers enter the beach and near the water’s edge. Signs stating that the beach is unguarded should be posted, as well as signs indicating the location of the nearest emergency telephone and equipment.

Types of Signage

When it comes to signage, there are three basic types: regulatory, warning and informational signs. In his Better Beaches book, Griffiths offers the following recommendations with regard to signage.

Regulatory signs should include local and state health and safety codes as well as beach or park rules such as no fishing or no pets allowed. The recommended colors for regulatory signs are black and white.

Warning signs are designed to make hazards obvious and get the attention of visitors. Black and yellow, red and white and black and white are the recommended color schemes for warning signs. Diamond-shaped, black-and-yellow, highway-like signs often work well for warnings.

Informational signs provide directions or information related to your beach. The color and shape of these signs can be creative and aesthetic in design. Regardless of the type of signs you are posting, remember the four C’s of signage: clear, concise, consistent and conspicuous. Keep your messages clear by using words and symbols that are easy to read and understand. Messages should be brief and placed in locations that will attract attention. Most importantly, make sure your warning signs stand alone and are not included on informational signs. The top three warning signs recommended by Griffiths are as follows:

Parents: Watch your children.
No diving or head-first entries.
Caution: Hidden hazards (warning of hazards related to your swim area).

Swim Area Review

While proper signage can warn patrons of hazards, it is the responsibility of the town or city to eliminate or reduce any hazard to make the swim beach safe. One of the first things to look at is your swim area. The swim area should be free of boats and water craft. Griffiths recommends a buffer zone of 100 to 200 feet between the swim and boating area. Signs, flags and buoy lines make good dividers that are easily seen by all users.

Also recommended is separating shallow-water, wading areas from deeper water swimming areas with a buoy line. A general suggestion for setting up would be allowing three-and-a-half to four feet as a dividing depth between wading and swimming areas. Griffiths also recommends that “whenever possible, consider adding fencing below the buoyant line to prevent little ones from getting into water over their heads." In his extensive travels, Griffiths has reportedly seen some swim beaches that install snow-fencing to protect non-swimmers from entering the swim area.

Docks and Rafts

Many New Hampshire swim beaches have rafts or swim floats that require participants to swim in deep water to reach them. If you have a raft or swim float, Griffiths recommends the following to keep participants safe.

Supervise your raft with life guards. It is recommended that a lifeguard be stationed on the raft while it is in use. It is also recommended that you have signage on the raft indicating its deep water locale as well as any rules or regulations specific to your raft.

Use a measure stick to ensure the water level is at least 9 feet deep around the raft if you allow diving from it. Nine feet of water is the minimum where diving should be allowed to decrease the risk of head injury. Finally, it is recommended that participants pass a swim test prior to being allowed to swim out to the raft. Colored wristbands might also be used to help easily identify participants who have passed the swim test.

Safety and Supervision

According to Griffiths, “the number one problem at beaches is lost children." It is important to continually remind parents that they—not the lifeguard—are responsible for supervising their children. It is good risk management to develop and enforce a supervision policy that includes an age for children when supervision is no longer required. For example: “Children under 12 years of age must be accompanied and supervised by a reasonable person." Another suggestion would be to develop a safe, colorful place for families to meet in the event of a lost child. If you identify an area (for example, lifeguard chair or concession area), make sure the area is staffed to help protect lost children.

Finally, warn beach guests about the dangers of head-first entries into open water. A guest at your swim beach can become a quadriplegic in less than two seconds due to a head-first entry. Griffiths warns that “two-thirds of all catastrophic neck injuries occur in open-water areas, not swimming pools" and points out that many unseen hazards exist below the surface in open-water environments. “Misjudging a standing or running head-first dive into either surf or flat water can result in permanent paralysis, regardless of the bottom materials struck," he adds, stressing that no-diving signs may help educate patrons about the dangers of head-first entries.

Risk exists in all aquatic activities. Make sure your swim beach is designed to increase enjoyment and reduce risks and hazards for safety’s sake. For more related information, visit Griffiths’ Aquatic Safety Research Group website at www.aquaticsafetygroup.com or contact your group’s LGC Risk Management Representative.

Kerry Mucher is a Health Management Representative of New Hampshire Local Government Center. She served as the director of Parks and Recreation in Farmington, New Hampshire, for 13 years and is past president of the New Hampshire Recreation and Park Association.

Helpful Resources from Public Beach Inspection Program

In preparation for the 2009 summer beach season, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) Public Beach Inspection Program wants to inform beach managers of administrative rules and advisory situations. Additionally, free signs are available to beach managers and owners to inform the public about beach monitoring and to assist beach managers to comply with state rules.

Administrative Rules

The current administrative rules “Env-Wq 1100 Public Bathing" outline three requirements for beach owners. The first is a beach owner must provide a lifeguard or post a sign at all entrances stating no lifeguard is available. The second is a beach owner must provide a telephone or radio for reaching emergency services within 200 feet of the water or post a sign stating where the closest telephone or radio is located. The third is a beach owner shall provide emergency rescue equipment or post a sign stating that no such equipment is available.

To assist a beach owner in complying with the rules, the DES Beach Program offers signs, free of charge, that cover all three requirements. If you would like these signs for your beach, please contact Sonya Carlson at 603.271.0698 or sonya.carlson@des.nh.gov

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Advisories and Signs

Only the beach owner has the authority to open and close beaches. The DES Beach Program inspects and samples 163 freshwater beaches each summer for bacteria and cyanobacteria. A green Monitored sign is now available to inform the public when a beach is monitored by DES for bacteria during the sampling season and that bacteria levels currently meet state beach water quality standards.

If an advisory is issued for a beach due to elevated E. coli bacteria levels or blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) presence, DES staff contacts the beach owner who then displays the appropriate Notice sign. In most situations, DES staff is able to resample every other day for E. coli advisories and weekly for blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) advisories.

Advisory notices are posted on the DES Beach Program website, which is updated daily during the beach season: http://www2.des.state.nh.us/Advisories/Beaches. Additionally, the DES Beach Program’s Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/NHDES_Beaches is updated daily.