Who's Watching The Lifeguards?
D.C., Suburbs Differ On Training And Staffing Regulations
By Jennifer Ordonez
"When it ain't broke, don't fix it," said Benjamin McCottry, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, which has jurisdiction over 40 of the 220 pools regulated by the city. "Our record has been exemplary."
But other pool-safety regulators throughout the Washington area have repeatedly revised safety codes for thousands of public and semipublic pools because the rules on certification, training and inspection were deemed to be outdated or inadequate. These rules affect both publicly operated pools and semipublic facilities at hotels, apartment houses and swim clubs.
Some suburban jurisdictions have steadily increased their demands that lifeguards take more breaks, work with more assistance when they are in their guard chairs and learn more first aid.
Fairfax County wants to raise the minimum number of lifeguards at all pools from one to two. Maryland will require all pools to have at least one lifeguard per 50 bathers beginning in February, the first time the state has ever adopted a formula. Prince William County recently contracted with a private firm to train its public pool lifeguards and periodically monitor them at work -- sometimes with video recorders.
Continual evaluation should be the norm, some safety regulators say. "I'm sure at the time our codes were :first: written, having any swimming pool codes at all was a big step," said James Armstrong, an environmental health supervisor with the Fairfax County Health Department. "But there have been many, many changes in what we know about lifesaving and in the water facilities themselves."
Multi-pool facilities with high diving boards and water slides have become far more common. Much has been learned about the hazards that may interfere with lifeguards' performance, and lifesaving techniques have become more demanding.
As a result of those trends, District lifeguard rules could become a political issue. "It's time to look at the regulations. If they are outdated, as a member of the ward where Patrick Edwards was killed I'm going to get some legislation passed on that," said Harry Thomas Sr. (D-Ward 5), who met last week with tenants of the apartment house where Patrick drowned.
A spokesman with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which sets the codes for all pools in the city, could not say when the rules were last changed or reviewed. Critics say the city should review its codes, which are based on 1981 recommendations by the American Public Health Association.
"I don't see the American Public Health Association guidelines still in effect: anywhere but in D.C.," said Lawrence Newell, an Ashburn safety consultant.
The District's approximately 180 semipublic pools are inspected for compliance with safety and operational standards, including lifeguard certification, about once a year. In contrast, officials in Fairfax, Prince William and Montgomery counties say their pools are inspected at least three times a year.
"Since 1981, the District of Columbia health department has been so under-funded that they've done very, very little inspection," said Bernard J. Fischer, director of the American Lifeguard Association, a private group that certifies lifeguards.
But Newell cautions that it's difficult to say how many inspections are enough. "Much depends on needs, the situation, how many swimmers, etc. Some of the states with the most stringent safety guidelines, like Florida, are also the ones with the most drownings," he said.
Stricter standards do not come without challenges -- and one is finding people willing to do the work at relatively low wages. Once considered the ultimate summer job, lifeguarding has lost some of its luster as liability concerns create more pressure, training requirements become more rigid and college students show more interest in career-oriented summer work.
With hourly wages ranging from $5 to $8, many potential lifeguards think twice about taking a job that exposes them to life-and-death situations, said the American Lifeguard Association's Fischer.
"We had one company that had 110 vacant positions this year," Fischer said.
Patrick Edwards knew how to swim when he went to the Brookland Manors Apartments on June 22. Friends of the tall, skinny seventh-grader became worried after noticing a long, dark shape at the bottom of the pool. They pointed it out to the two lifeguards, who reportedly replied that it was a large patch of dirt and did not investigate.
Witnesses said the lifeguards were in street clothing and tennis shoes and were socializing with bathers. Patrick's friends pulled his body out of the water, and he allegedly did not receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation until paramedics arrived.
The lifeguards were employees of Seahorse Pool Service Inc., the firm hired by Edgewood Management Co., which manages Brookland Manors. Seahorse has denied the lifeguards were negligent.
Mark R. Thompson, a lawyer suing Seahorse in a case involving a teenage girl who nearly drowned in 1995 at a Washington motel pool, says defendants are trying to shift responsibility as much as possible. "Apartment management, private companies, lifeguards, everybody wants to pass the buck," Thompson said. "If these are attended pools, this should not happen."
Some experts say lax management at pools and by private companies is why codes need to be reviewed often, especially as more hotels and residential complexes turn to contractors for lifeguard services.
Loose regulation of private firms invites problems, Newell said. "Generally, if you have a current lifeguarding card, they accept the card at face value. Whether they check skills or give pre-service training varies tremendously."
Centennial Pools, of Laurel, which provides lifeguards to 70 pools, has hired a company to audit its workers' performance. Video surveillance and frequent testing have been effective, said Centennial President Mike Kinloch.
This fall, Fairfax County voters will decide in a referendum whether to adopt tougher rules, such as increasing the number of lifeguards at each of the 580 public and semipublic pools from one to two. The county also would prohibit lifeguards from listening to loud music, performing pool chores or engaging in casual conversation while in the lifeguard chair.
Armstrong, the Fairfax health official, thinks the anticipated resistance from owners of smaller semipublic pools should not dissuade voters from adopting what he believes are common-sense measures.
"One person covering an entire six-hour shift is too much when you're asking them to stay alert and focused in the hot sun," he said.
In April, Prince William County's public pools began requiring all new lifeguards to take an in-house certification course. In Montgomery County, public pool lifeguards undergo training every three months.
The District leaves the decision to continue lifeguard training at its public pools up to individual managers.
In the meantime, as regulators consider tougher rules, the outcome likely will come down to cost.
"The bottom line is always money. It costs more to have more lifeguards," said Fischer, who said the only way to protect the public is through continual change. "If you have a set of codes that haven't been updated in five years, they're outdated. Period."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company