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Lifeguards cannot save what they cannot see

Drs. Pelletier and Gilchrist, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 140 fatal drownings[1] from 2000 to 2008 in pools with lifeguards on duty.[i] Mick and Sue Nelson, formerly with USA Swimming, identified 137 fatal drownings from 2009 to 2019 in pools with lifeguards on duty.[ii] The problem is larger than these numbers indicate. Both studies used data obtained from media, which underreports drownings by as much as 48%.[iii]

All lifeguards in the U.S.A. must be certified through an “AHJ[2]-recognized lifeguard training course offered by an AHJ-recognized training agency.”[iv] The Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC), developed and regularly updated through an extensive process that incorporates knowledge from public health officials, aquatics sector experts and researchers, requires:

  1. Lifeguards be positioned where they have an “unobstructed view of the bather surveillance zone”[v]

  2. and that lifeguards zones be established such that lifeguards are “capable of viewing the entire area of the assigned zone of patron surveillance”[vi]

This is not a new requirement. Since 2003, the American National Standard for Public Swimming Pools has mandated:

When lifeguards are required, chairs and stations shall be positioned to allow guards to meet the 10/20 rule.[vii] The 10/20 rule requires that lifeguards be trained and stationed in a manner that allows them to identify an incident within 10 seconds of it beginning and respond and initiate proper protocol within 20 additional seconds.[viii]

Despite this long-standing directive, lifeguards continue to be stationed where line of sight obstructions and/or glare block view of part of their assigned patron surveillance zone.

The following photograph was taken from the location of the lifeguard stand. There are 30 ANGELS™ devices[3] on the pool bottom. How many can you see?

Section of the MAHC requires that lighting in and around swimming pools “illuminate all parts of the floor of the aquatic venue to enable a qualified lifeguard or other person to determine whether a bather is on the floor of the aquatic venue.”

Regardless, indoor pools are frequently designed and constructed with overhead lighting positioned where glare on the water surface is inevitable. The aquatic facility owner and/or operator must then determine where to position lifeguards so they have a clear view of every cubic foot of water in their surveillance zone, despite glare from artificial lighting.

The following photograph, taken at an indoor aquatic facility, captured three children swimming just below the surface of the water. From the chair where the lifeguard was stationed, glare made the children nearly impossible to see.

Due to glare on the water surface, even the legs of patrons closer to the lifeguard are invisible. Likewise, any submerged patron would be invisible to the lifeguard, increasing the risk of yet another fatal drowning at a pool with lifeguards on duty.


In addition to artificial light, all pools exposed to natural lighting, whether outdoors or indoors with large windows and/or under a translucent dome are subject to glare across different sections of the pool surface as the earth moves relative to the sun. Glare can be so intense that even polarized sunglasses don’t allow lifeguards to see below the water surface.

At indoor pools, lifeguards rarely wear polarized sunglasses, so glare from windows must be addressed by adding tinting or shades that don’t hinder visibility due to lack of light.

Beyond the obstruction caused by glare, divider walls within pools, play features, and even lane ropes can result in line-of-sight obstructions that can cause a drowning to go unrecognized by an improperly positioned lifeguard.

For years, the industry has told lifeguards: “If you don’t know, Go!”

Imagine being the lifeguard assigned to sit in the same location day after day, scanning the pool as trained and looking for signs of any anomaly on the pool bottom. As a lifeguard, your eyes and head must be constantly moving, repeatedly scanning your entire zone. You see a dark spot on the far side of the lane rope—in the same location that you’ve seen a dark spot every day because of the lane line on the bottom of the pool. That dark spot is not an anomaly.

But today, it is a drowning child that you, as the lifeguard, cannot identify because your view is obstructed. If you had been properly positioned, you would have been able to see arms and legs and known that the dark spot was a passive drowning victim, rather than just that same old dark spot caused by the lane line on the pool bottom.

Positioning lifeguards so that each has an unobstructed 3-dimensional view of their assigned patron surveillance zone is achievable when aquatic facility management performs proper scientific testing under various loading (swim lessons, open swim, parties, etc.) and lighting conditions (morning, afternoon, evening) throughout operating hours. Using the right tools and system makes the process simple and yields reliable results.

ANGELS™ devices make it easy to perform scientific testing and ensure lifeguards are properly positioned. Per the Assistant Director of Aquatics at Georgia Tech: This system is also much faster than taking a CPR dummy and moving it from spot to spot...which was our previous method and was highly inefficient in comparison.

[1] Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid. Drowning outcomes are classified as death, morbidity and no morbidity. Accessed May 5, 2020 [2] Authority having jurisdiction [3] ANGELS™ device (Area Notification Gear for Effective Lifeguard Surveillance)

[i] Pelletier, A., Gilchrist, J. Fatalities in swimming pools with lifeguards: USA 2000-2008. Injury Prevention 2011; 17:250-253. doi: 10.1136/ip.2010.029751 [ii] Accessed May 4, 2020 [iii] Pelletier, A., Gilchrist, J. Fatalities in swimming pools with lifeguards: USA 2000-2008. Injury Prevention 2011; 17:250-253. doi: 10.1136/ip.2010.029751 [iv] 2018 Model Aquatic Health Code 6.2.1(1) [v] 2018 Model Aquatic Health Code [vi] 2018 Model Aquatic Health Code [vii] ANSI/NSPI-1 2003 18.4; ANSI/APSP/ICC-1 2014 18.4 [viii] ANSI/NSPI-1 2003 Appendix H Glossary; ANSI/APSP/ICC-1 2014 7.1.5 Note


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