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Enhancing aquatic facility safety and response protocols

Location/direction of emergency: point to eyes (meaning watch and look in that direction (right or left)), then to the location of the emergency.

Current training prepares lifeguards to take immediate action and use whistle blasts to alert other lifeguards who are prepared to assist as assigned, while also signaling the need for the rescue tube. Common whistle protocol used in most pool training is:

  • One short blast to gain the attention of a swimmer;
  • Two short blasts to gain the attention of a fellow lifeguard;
  • Three short blasts to signal a fellow lifeguard that an emergency is taking place and action must be taken;
  • One long blow to signal swimmers to clear the pool; and
  • Lifeguards respond according to training.
Breathing problem: place hand over mouth. This could represent an asthma attack, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or someone accidentally swallowing water and choking.

Fifty-meter (164-ft) pools, multi-pool complexes, and leisure pools have additional challenges when it comes to staffing and maximizing communication systems. In these facilities, where one lifeguard is on the stand and another is constantly roaming the deck, a whistle signal for quick assistance should be adequate for the second lifeguard. The strategic placement of lifeguards provides visual contact with fellow guards; therefore, adding hand signals can quickly define needed assistance for pools without two-way radios or those in noisy environments.

Breathing problem: place hand over mouth. This could represent an asthma attack, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or someone accidentally swallowing water and choking.

Lifeguards in leisure and multi-pool facilities or 50-m (164-ft) pools use whistles and two-way radios for standard communication. Radios provide instant communication allowing lifeguards in large facilities to quickly use them for distress calls. However, most two-way radios are not waterproof, but waterproof cases are available. Rather than being used for communication between lifeguards, they are primarily used to communicate with the supervisor (e.g. when the supervisor’s office is not adjacent to pool) or the response team/medical staff. Some radios have the ability to communicate directly with a 911 dispatch office.

Show a sign

heart attack
Heart attack: place hand at heart.

Another challenge still remains, however, as pools are known for being busy, noisy, and having bad acoustics. In this regard, hand signals are a way to maximize communication between lifeguard stations. Establishing hand signals for non-verbal communication requires knowing the rescue tube and arm signals approved and encouraged by national lifesaving article text groups.

Some lifeguards are certified to work pool and beachfront swimming areas; therefore, if hand signals are to be used in aquatic facilities, they must agree with the ones already established. Comparison of these signals showed agreement with rescue flotation device signals performed by the lifeguard on land and signs that provide the location/movement direction to the victim for the in-water rescuer. In-water rescuer arm signals are primarily used to initiate backup or to provide a victim status update to on deck rescuers.

Stroke: place hand over one side of the face (this relates to the common signs (e.g. blurred vision, uneven smile, et.))

Complementing these established hand signals are the universal emergency hand signals. The basic ones alert to an emergency to properly assist the victim(s), incident if further assistance is needed, and signal the location or direction of the emergency. The hand signals defined in this article have also been identified for basic emergencies in the pool area to maintain victim confidentiality, while quickly alerting other responders.

Implementing an emergency hand signal protocol

Seizure: extend both arms upward and briefly waver.

Introducing hand signals into current Emergency Action Plans can be added during training for specific emergencies, by discussing with staff how they can be incorporated into an established response plan to quickly identify the area, type of emergency, and whether assistance is needed.

In-service training sessions are a quick and easy way to show how to use emergency hand signals in established aquatic facilities with experienced lifeguards. As these hand signals are a new concept, implementing them into existing plans is the responsibility of pool managers as they too learn about the concept. Although they are not written into national lifeguarding handbooks used for training, they are logical, international signs which trainers can use when conducting exercises in facilities where they have a definite need and advantage.

Spine/neck injury suspected: place hand at back of neck.

Before implementing emergency hand signal procedures, aquatic facility managers or operators should question how, and if, their use will play a positive role during an incident response in their facility. Keep in mind, however, hand signals are quick, immediate, and understood by anyone who sees them. For instance, in cases where some aquatic facilities supplement lifeguards with video monitoring, hand signals can immediately provide essential information to the person monitoring the video surveillance or to the water watcher on deck.

However, just like any Emergency Action Plan, to be effective, responders must know their role—whether it is to provide on-site assistance, call Emergency Medical Services (EMS), or bring the required response item (e.g. backboard, automated external defibrillator (AED), or first aid kit), or simply help with crowd control.

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