deaf lifeguardsThis article is reprinted with permission from the author, Anita Marchitelli.
The Deaf as Lifeguards / Patron Surveillance is
the Key The Deaf as
Lifeguards/Patron Surveillance is the Key
Department of Physical Education and
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
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
overlookthat of being distracted from the central purpose of vigilantly watching
over the waters being guardedwith 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.
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
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
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.
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202-448-7584 or 202-651-5591