It has been said that men are nearly as foolish around water as they are around women. Somehow, be it beach, river, or poolside, they tend to look at the water’s alluring invitation, and too often toss all caution to the winds. This is one reason that America’s myriad ocean, river, and lake beaches, and its 8.6 million pools, are the scene of an average of 3,300 drownings every year.
Tom Griffiths, head of the Aquatics Safety Research Group (www.aquaticssafetygroup.com) in State College, Pennsylvania, has made a lifelong career of bringing a little sanity into our water-side nonchalance. To help spread some awareness of swimming pool safety and liabilities, the New Jersey Institute of Continuing Legal Education offers "From Beaches to Pools: Keeping Afloat with the Aquatics Expert" on Wednesday, August 22, at 1 p.m. at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick. Cost: $135. Visit www.njicle.com. While Griffiths emphasizes techniques, Christian Stuben, attorney for Bally’s Total Fitness, covers owner liability and the state’s legal requirements.
Griffiths lifesaving career dates back to small Laurel Lake in Montvale. There an apple farmer who couldn’t swim ran a very safe outdoor swimming club, and took Griffiths under his wing. By age 13 Griffiths was guarding kids on the water slides. As Griffith’ own diving and swimming career took off, so did his concern over aquatic safety. He attended Southern Connecticut University, where he competed in diving and in l971 earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education. He then took his master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Maryland in educational administration.
Since then Griffiths has held a number of swim area supervisory positions, and is now director of aquatics and safety officer for the athletic department at Penn State University. He has also developed a consulting business around aquatic safety, and has written more than 300 journal articles and several books, including "The Complete Swimming Pool Reference" and "Better Beaches."
For safety’s sake he has invented a better lifeguard chair, a pool scanning method, and even a line of warning signs.
"Most pool owners will go a lifetime and never have any injuries in their pools," says Griffiths. "But that’s more a matter of luck than preparedness." He says that a little planning can increase a pool’s odds of being injury-free.
Structuring safety. "We call it a quad wall because it is such a handy tool for making quadriplegics," says Griffiths. Most home pools have diving boards, but very few have enough diving space. The nine feet of required depth may be fine for a straight jump or the old cannonball, but most divers dive away from the board, carrying their chins and necks swiftly toward the shallow slant of the pool bottom. Colliding face to stone with an upward slanting bottom can jerk the head back, snapping the vertebrae, and severing all nerves from the shoulders down.
Most pool manufacturers’ models have this diving hazard built in, but the problem is not insurmountable. Griffiths suggests trading in the diving board for a pool slide, which allows swimmers to enter the water feet first. Or for those into fitness, climbing walls on the pool edge provide a little challenging exercise, with a chance for a quick cool off.
A more easily installed safety structure is the four-sided fence with self-locking gates. Many pool owners use the back of their houses as the fourth side of the pool enclosure, but this does not make a good fence, Griffiths insists, unless it has no doors and unless every window facing the pool area is always locked.
The lifeguard. The next time that you go to your community pool, Griffiths suggests you bring a stopwatch. Time the guard for 10 minutes and note how many seconds he is looking at something other than the pool. Also, watch his head. Is he moving actively, or is he leaning back, with his legs crossed. And of course, how much of his time is spent chatting with bikini-clad admirers.
Since World War II, studies have consistently shown that no one can effectively scan a scene for more than 15 minutes without changing position. Realizing this, Griffiths has developed his widely-adopted Five Minute Scanning Strategy. At the beginning of each five-minute segment the lifeguard checks the bottom of the pool, then rhythmically scans the pool area for problems from right to left.
After five minutes, he stands, moves around, and gets a little blood and oxygen flowing. Then he checks the pool bottom and scans in another pattern, say top to bottom.
"Regardless of the lifeguard’s capabilities, parents should remember that he is a backup, not a babysitter," says Griffiths. It is unfair and unsafe for parents to simply drop their children off at the community or club pool and consider them totally in the guard’s watchful custody. It is the parents’ duty to accompany and watch their children at the pool.
Party time. All the neighbors are gathered together in the back yard. The men are out having a few beers and playing horseshoes in one corner, other folks are standing around the grill, and the children are all off plunging into the swimming pool screened just behind the evergreen trees. "It is a recipe for disaster," says Griffiths. "Who’s watching – carefully watching – the swimmers?"
The parents should be watching, but each assumes the other parents or the hosts are on hand, providing that service. One solution is to designate rotating lifeguards for specific, overlapping periods. A another solution is to hire a responsible high schooler to be lifeguard for the party’s duration. He need not be able to deftly perform the cross chest carry and CPR.
He is only a tripwire, serving to sound the alarm if there is any trouble. Some hosts think nothing of a $500 catering bill for keeping their guests well fed, so Griffiths thinks that another $15 to $25 an hour to keep swimmers safe is a smart expenditure at any pool party.
Hazards in the open water. Be especially careful when swimming in unfamiliar lakes or rivers. It’s tempting to dive from cliffs and jump from rocks, but be aware that all too often the water may be more shallow than it looks, and that there may well be rocks not far under the surface.
The majority of ocean swimming accidents occur after the lifeguards have blown their whistles, pulled up their boats, and left for the day. Some New Jersey beaches provide after-hours patrols, but even this back-up is a poor substitute for a cadre of well-trained lifeguards, who spend hours each week practicing rescue techniques. Think twice – and then think again – before entering the surf after hours.
Teach children to swim, but not too soon. As a final caveat, Griffiths warns against having children take up swimming too early. Formal swimming lessons ideally should begin between ages four to six. Before that the youngsters’ eustachian tubes are crooked and likely to trap water and cause a lifetime of infections.
Don’t wait too long, though. If a child has not taken the plunge by age eight, his fear of water may grow with each passing year, and he may never learn to swim. Beyond losing out on one of the most pleasant, relaxing activities in a watery world, he will always be in danger when he boards a boat, and will be unable to do much to rescue his own children when they are old enough to don water wings.
Safety may be a watchful state of mind, but it is not an emotion. Being safe means merely being aware of potential risks and translating them into sensible actions. Safety driven to an emotional frenzy is fear, which is probably the greatest hazard parents can pass on to their children. In short, we owe it to our young swimmers to teach them the acts of safety, and to radiate the joy of the wet experience.