deaf lifeguards

This article is reprinted with permission from the author, Anita Marchitelli.

The Deaf as Lifeguards / Patron Surveillance is
the Key

Submitted by
Anita Marchitelli

Department of Physical Education and
November, 2008

The Deaf as Lifeguards/Patron Surveillance is the Key

The most important duty of a lifeguard is patron surveillance, which means keeping a close watch over people in the aquatic facility. For this patron surveillance to be effective requires that guards must be able to recognize situations or behaviors that may lead to life-threatening emergencies. If it is decided that a person is in difficulty, the lifeguard(s) must be prepared to respond immediately.

Scanning is a critical factor in being able to recognize a victim in difficulty. The process of scanning requires lifeguards to actively observe patrons’ behavior and look for signs that someone in the water is in need of assistance. There are many lifeguard training programs, however not all programs follows or emphasize the same surveillance techniques.

Lifeguards trained by the American Red Cross are taught to watch for specific behaviors that show a swimmer is in distress or a person is actively drowning. These lifeguards trained by the Red Cross are instructed to look for changes in body position, movement, patterns, apparent breathing difficulties, and changes in arms and leg action. Knowing the differences in these behaviors aids the lifeguard to decide if a person is a swimmer, a distressed swimmer, or an active drowning victim.

There are many lifeguards that believe they will be able to recognize a drowning because they are expecting a lot of movement, different facial expressions, and cries for help. But, in reality drowning victims may be motionless, without noise and surrounded by many people who do not notice any difficulty that a person may be experiencing. Lifeguards trained by the Red Cross learn basic point-to-point surveillance techniques so they can better recognize a swimmer needing help.

When lifeguards are taught to think about what they are seeing, they can become more aware of the signals of an emergency and develop quick recognition of a situation that needs their immediate help. Lifeguards need to be constantly reinforced to perform effective patron surveillance and to be alert to recognize life threatening behaviors that might necessitate responding quickly and appropriately.

There are 2 categories of water crisis each with their own recognizable characteristics, the “distressed” victim and the “drowning” victim. A distressed swimmer is one who makes little or no forward progress and generally cannot reach safety without a lifeguard’s help. They are usually able to keep their face out of the water, show facial signs of anxiety, poor swimming ability and may wave for assistance. There are also many signs before a swimmer actually becomes distressed, that a good lifeguard could recognize and take preventive action before the swimmer becomes a potential danger. The early signs for distress are: Little forward progress and less able to support self.

These signs of distress are always visible. Sometimes the distressed victim may additionally call for assistance. Under normal circumstances where the efforts of the swimmer are to stay above water, such a call would often be expected to be very weak and difficult to hear. Moreover, it would be purely speculative to suggest that at a beach, lakefront or crowded noisy pool, the occasional distress call would be heard even by a person with normal hearing. Thus, the trained lifeguard must rely on his or her sight to detect distress. To rely on hearing would be an invitation to danger.

The second type of water crisis is “drowning.” Characteristics of “drowning” include “the inability to call for help where the swimmer cannot call attention to themselves.” Thus, hearing for the purpose of recognizing a drowning, is entirely irrelevant.

Frank Pia, the creator of the concept of the “RID” factor, identified those factors causing drownings where lifeguards were on duty. He discovered that with the exception of passive drownings where the victim slips below the surface of the water without a struggle, drownings occurred because the lifeguard failed to recognized the struggle of the drowning person or the lifeguard was given duties by management that Intruded upon the surveillance system, or the lifeguard chose to take himself out of the surveillance system by engaging in some Distracting activity. The research known as the RID Factor is included in the current textbooks of the American Red Cross and the Royal Lifesaving Society of Canada.

Why does safe lifeguarding require that the eyes always remain on the zone in question? The answer is very simple. One cannot remotely begin to rely on sound to detect danger or drowning. Completely silent drownings occur where a swimmer may get a heart attack or stroke. The lifeguard, who chooses to rely on his or her hearing rather than vision, creates an unsafe environment.

It is critical that the lifeguard not be assigned peripheral duties while actively on duty as a lifeguard. These additional duties pose a grave danger that facilities routinely overlook that of being distracted from the central purpose of vigilantly watching over the waters being guarded with sometimes fatal results.

I have worked with deaf individuals as a physical educator over the past 34 years. One of my primary responsibilities includes managing an aquatic program and training of all the lifeguards. As such, I have certified well over 800 deaf lifeguards using the American Red Cross methods. My extensive experience with deaf lifeguards over the years has been quite positive. I believe it is likely in some part, due to the visual sensitivity that deaf people have what most of us as hearing people do not. Deaf individuals have had to train themselves to appreciate information visually, thus compensating for the lack of hearing. While a hearing person and a deaf person may both look at the lips of a person moving while speaking, the deaf person will undoubtedly understand much more by reading the person’s body language. Due to the need to develop visual skills, subtle movements are understood by deaf people in ways that hearing people cannot. Deaf individuals are experts in reading body language.

Similarly, the use of sign language, body language, facial expressions and general body movements, creates sensitivity to visual space, that ordinary hearing people generally do not see. I have often been with deaf people who have noticed things that I or other hearing people did not observe. I don’t believe that a deaf person physically “sees more” but he/she is simply better able to understand and interpret more from the visual picture in front of them.

This is much like a blind person whose hearing may not be actually any better than a sighted
person. However, the need to be attentive to differences in sound would enable the blind person to distinguish the sound of one person walking as compared to another person, or perhaps “receive more information” in a walk than the average sighted person.

I have regularly seen hearing lifeguards engaged in idle chatter while guarding. This behavior is inappropriate but is a common practice. The hearing lifeguard thinks that because their eyes may be facing the water that they are seeing all that is happening. However, lifeguarding is not just about seeing. It is about recognition and analyzing, without intrusion or distraction. The hearing lifeguard may be under the misconception that chattering while looking forward does not cause a distraction. This could not be further from the truth. Lifeguarding requires constant mental attention. Any mental lapse or diversion could prove to be fatal.

By contrast, one advantage of the deaf lifeguard is that it simply is not possible for a deaf lifeguard to have such a chat without taking their eyes off the pool. Thus, deaf lifeguards simply do not engage in such idle chatter. If necessary, they communicate for very limited moments and immediately refocus on the guarded area. I have been told by several of the pool facilities that regularly request our deaf lifeguards, that they find them to be extraordinarily attentive to the pool environment, they do not get distracted and they take their work very serious. Where people have been open to seeing what the actual capabilities of deaf lifeguards are, there has never been anything but positive feedback.

There have been instances where our deaf lifeguards have worked with hearing lifeguards. We have had occasions to bring our children’s summer camp to a swimming facility off campus. With the hearing and deaf lifeguards stationed at their posts, I have witnessed times where there were distressed swimmers in the water. During those times, it was always the deaf lifeguard who responded first, implementing the appropriate rescue.

The former world record holder for over 1,000 rescues, Leroy Colombo, was a deaf beach front lifeguard in Galveston, Texas. He is living evidence as have been the hundreds, if not thousands of deaf people, who have proven the capabilities of deaf people as lifeguards.

There is no evidence or proof to exclude deaf people from lifeguarding. My extensive experience has proven quite the opposite. Deaf lifeguards are at least as good as hearing lifeguards and often superior for the reasons stated above.

Anita Marchitelli

Gallaudet University

Department of Physical Education & Recreation

800 Florida Ave, NE

Washington, DC 20002

202-448-7584 or 202-651-5591

see also:

How to tell if the lifeguards doing their job properly

NOT rescue ready is a collection of real, not posed, photos of lifeguards on duty who are not ready to do a rescue, and equipment/facilities also not rescue ready, for discussion in my lifeguard training classes.

lifeguard training faqs with advice and tips for passing lifeguard training prerequisite swim tests and written exams. The same tricks for Red Cross training also for apply to YMCA, Ellis, USLA, Boy Scouts or Starguard tests.

read more about “the World’s Greatest Lifeguard,” Leroy Columbo at: history of lifesaving

lifeguard training links includes links to free downloads of Red Cross textbooks.