Is Your Aquatics Staff Ready to Handle a Summer Emergency?

By Kerry Horne

Summer is right around the corner! As a pool, beach or recreation director, you are probably knee deep in hiring lifeguards, pool attendants and other staff members who will serve your community this summer. While preparing for the season ahead, make sure you take time to update your policies and procedures as well as your Aquatics Emergency Action Plan (EAP).  

Emergency Action Plan                                                                                                        

Is your EAP sitting on a shelf collecting dust? Has it been years since you reviewed it with your staff? If you’ve answered “yes” to either question, it’s time to brush off the dust and update your plan. More importantly, it’s your job as a director or supervisor to make sure your staff members understand—and are prepared to implement—the EAP when needed. Remember the saying, “Practice makes perfect?” How you and your staff members prepare for emergencies will help define how you respond during a critical incident at your beach or pool.

An EAP is a predetermined guideline for dealing with an emergency in an organized and efficient manner. The plan outlines who is responsible for what during an emergency. Your plan should be realistic and representative of emergencies likely to occur at your facility. Aquatics emergencies include, but are not limited to, the following: drowning, spinal injury, fights, lost child, medical emergencies (heart attack), first aid, weather emergencies (thunderstorm, lightning, heavy rain), chemical spills, fire and theft.

One of the best things you can do is take a look at your incident and accident reports from prior years and ensure noted issues are included in your EAP. Once you have developed your list of potential emergencies, begin to develop a plan that outlines what specifically should occur during each potential emergency. Jill E. White of the Starfish Aquatics Institute offers the following suggestions:

  • Post your EAP in a key area for quick reference.
  • Keep your EAP simple and easy to follow.
  • Practice your EAP regularly.
  • Design your EAP to include everyone who will respond.
  • Develop your EAP for emergency types specific to your facility.

It’s important to be explicit when looking at staff responsibilities during an emergency. Some aquatics facilities have multiple staff members; others have only one or two staff members on duty at any given time. Make sure your plan fits your staff and facility. Many towns and cities have multiple pools and/or beaches; make sure you have an EAP that is site specific.

The duties listed on page 30 include a sampling of what White suggests you might include in your EAP. The major areas to address are staff responsibility, when to call EMS, first aid procedures, communication, reports and dealing with the media. Other topics to consider include a floor plan of your facility and identifying both hazardous areas and where equipment is located.

If you’re looking for written examples of EAPs, there are a variety of books and resources available for your review. These include The Complete Swimming Pool Reference by Dr. Tom Griffiths; StarGuard: Best Practices for Lifeguards by Jill E. White and Lifeguarding Today from the American Red Cross. These resources provide sample plans as well as steps to either update your EAP or create one for your facility. 

Once you have your EAP in place, it’s important to make sure your staff members understand and can implement the plan. In-service training is a great time to practice your plan so that lifeguards and staff members know how to properly respond to the emergency situations you have outlined in your EAP. If you are creating a scenario for staff members to respond to, Griffiths suggests having staff follow your EAP step by step (as written in your plan) the first time through their training. The second time through the scenario, change something to make it more realistic. If someone is asked to call 911 on a land line, for example, unplug the phone cord or change something in the situation so that lifeguards and staff members have to adapt and “think outside the box.”

Rarely do emergencies happen “by the book,” right? Train your lifeguards and staff members using the closest realistic settings as possible so staff is ready to respond to real-life situations. Griffiths notes that many people freeze or forget everything they have read while under high stress. So having staff members participate in life-like situations will help them much more than just reading the facility EAP. Remind your staff members to keep this helpful mantra in mind: Stop, think, breathe and react. 

Policies and Procedures

Now that you’ve thought about your EAP, how about considering your policies and procedures? Do they need to be revised for the upcoming season? Policies and procedures are important to the overall function and safety of your facility. Don’t get carried away and create more than you need. Keep them short and to the point.

Policies will differ from community to community based on the type of aquatics facility you have (pool or beach) and on local rules and/or regulations. Following are a few policy concerns from StarGuard: Best Practices for Lifeguards. Does your policy manual address them?

  • Restricting head-first entries
  • Lifeguards vs. babysitters: Remember that lifeguards are not babysitters and can’t watch all children at all times. Far too often, parents assume lifeguards are watching their children and lifeguards assume that parents are supervising their own children. What ends up happening is that many children are left without direct supervision. Have a policy that requires children under a certain age to be accompanied by a responsible person of a certain age. (Example: Post signs that clearly state the responsibility of the parent or caregiver for supervising their children.)
  • Group use: Include ratio of adults/staff to children required at your facility. Policy should clearly outline responsibility of group leaders and lifeguards during the group trip and/or party.
  • Deep water: It’s relative to the height of a swimmer and can be considered anything above the chest level of that person. (Do you have a policy that requires non-swimmers to stay in waist-deep water? Does your policy require a parent or caregiver to be within arms reach of a non-swimming child?)
  • Lifejacket and floatation devices
  • Prohibiting alcohol and drug use in facility for patrons and staff
  • Missing persons
  • Weather (thunder and lightning)
  • Removing a patron from facility for violation of rules and/or policy

Each of the aforementioned areas should be looked at and, if appropriate, added to your facility policies. Like your EAP, policies should be reviewed every year and updated to include any new issues that occurred the previous year not already covered in your plan.

Facility Rules

Another area that should be addressed prior to the summer season is reviewing your facility rules and regulations. Rules are not created to take away fun; rather, they are created to protect the health and safety of the staff and patrons. Are there issues that occurred the previous year that are not currently addressed in your rules? Are there rules that your staff no longer enforces, and is this the year to remove them from your rules? If you take the time to make a rule, make sure your staff takes the time to enforce it with patrons. 

Staff members and lifeguards should review and understand facility rules prior to the start of every season. Lifeguards should take a proactive approach to enforcing facility rules to help keep patrons safe and protect them from injury. In StarGuard: Best Practices for Lifeguards, White emphasizes that accidents happen despite posted warning signs and attentive staff members. “You can’t prevent accidents if patrons choose to disregard your warnings or don’t use common sense, such as when people dive into shallow water where ‘No Diving’ signs are clearly posted,” she notes. Prevention is the job of everyone—facility manager, lifeguards, staff members and patrons alike. 

Whatever your rules state, make sure they are properly posted and, more importantly, reviewed and enforced by lifeguards and staff members. Staff and employees must understand their responsibilities to enforce your facility rules. Make sure your policy includes how a patron is to be removed from your facility when necessary. If lifeguards and staff members are going to enforce the rules, consequences for breaking the rules should be clearly stated in your policies and procedures. Dealing with patrons can be difficult at times. But, with a cool head and soft words, situations can often be handled without conflict.

It might be worthwhile to spend a little time during your pre-season training to give staff tips on dealing with difficult situations and patrons. The American Red Cross offers the following advice.

Be consistent. Enforce the same rule in the same way every time. Uniform rule enforcement means that if two different guests are violating a rule, both should be stopped.

Remember your delivery. Staff members should explain to guests the reason for rules when enforcing them. An employee is correcting guests, not punishing them, so delivery of the correction is crucial! Remember, a little diplomacy can go a long way when dealing with difficult situations.

Lead by example. Don’t expect guests to comply with rules designed for their safety if you do not obey the same rules.

In-Service Training

In-service staff training should be more than reading policies and procedures and filling out paperwork. The question on many directors’ minds is often this: How much training should I be doing for my lifeguards and aquatics staff? Griffiths suggests four hours of training per month or one hour for every 40 hours worked. That might seem like a lot for seasonal facilities, but this recommendation is being followed around the country and rapidly becoming a standard in aquatics.

Be creative with your in-service training. Suggested areas to cover include pre-season rules and regulations, conditioning activities, safety, surveillance and scanning activities, rescue activities, EAP and team building. It’s important to plan out your training schedule and equally important to document your trainings. 

According to author Susan Grosse in her book Lifeguard Training Activities and Games, “A total lifeguard program should have training components, conditioning, rescue simulation and special scenario activities to enhance training.” If your lifeguard and staff training program only involves reading manuals and signing papers, it might be time to put a little life into your program.

Grosse contends that “using scenario-based training not only reinforces skills but also educates individuals on the operation of risk management for the entire facility.” For example, if you are providing a training session on completing accident and incident forms, why not set up a scenario that staff members watch? Then have them individually fill out the appropriate form according to what they saw instead of reading and reviewing the form as a group. This allows hands-on training and adds an element of reality to your training. After the activity, have everyone share their report. You’ll be amazed how differently people see the same situation. More new and innovative activities ideas on how to add scenario activities to your training that can challenge your staff members in a fun and educational manner are provided in Lifeguard Training Activities and Games.

As the summer season approaches, there are lots of issues that aquatic facility managers and staff should address to prepare for a safe summer. Keep in mind that risk exists in all aquatic activities. Your facility’s goal should be to reduce risk for staff as well as patrons and to ensure the facility is safe and enjoyed by all.

Kerry Horne is a health management representative of New Hampshire Local Government Center and previously served as director of parks and recreation in Farmington, New Hampshire for 13 years as well as president of the New Hampshire Parks and Recreation Association. She can be reached by calling 800.852.3358, ext. 126, or e-mailing 

Duties to Outline in Emergency Action Plans*

  • Communication (Example: whistle cadences)
  • Calling EMS (when to call 911 and what information to give)
  • Signaling for equipment and help 
  •  Maintaining surveillance
  • Evacuating patrons
  • Bringing equipment to the scene
  • Attending to the victim and providing care
  • Meeting EMS personnel; leading them to the scene
  • Emergency exits and evacuation routes
  • Removing or controlling dangerous conditions
  • Notifying supervisors (chain of command)
  • Notifying parents or relatives
  • Obtaining and securing victim’s personal belongings
  • Obtaining witness statements
  • Writing reports (Example: incident and accident forms)
  • Speaking with the public and/or media (identify a media point person)
  • Follow up with staff (evaluate EAP; debriefing, especially for critical incident stress)

*Adapted from Starfish Aquatics Institute

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