Different strokes for lifeguards during COVID-19

As Ontarians head to pools and beaches to beat the heat, lifeguards are going back to basics to protect swimmers — and themselves
By Justin Chandler - Published on Aug 06, 2020
The Lifesaving Society of Canada has released a guide to reopening pools and waterfronts. (iStock.com/stellalevi)

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When a lifeguard sees a distressed swimmer, they assess the situation and react right away. If someone appears to be in danger of drowning, a guard is trained to signal an alert, enter the water, swim to the person in need, and carry them to safety. This year, COVID-19 has complicated that procedure. In addition to adopting new cleanliness procedures, lifeguards have had to re-learn old ways of rescuing and providing first aid in order to protect themselves and the public. 

“COVID appeared, and we knew things were likely going to be changing in the aquatic world,” says Michael Shane, the director of training for the Lifesaving Society of Canada, a water-safety organization and charity that regulates and certifies lifeguards. In June, the society released a guide to reopening pools and waterfronts and distributed it to every Ontario public-health unit, Shane says. 

The society now recommends that, when rescuing someone who is conscious, lifeguards consider the distance between them and the person in need — and then conduct a rescue making as little contact as possible. That philosophy of risk management is similar to the Ladder Approach, a technique that guards learn in their earliest stages of lifesaving training: Bronze Medallion and Bronze Cross. Rather than immediately swimming to a person in need and making contact, someone using that approach will try to help that person by talking to them, throwing or passing them an aid — such as a flutter board or ring buoy — or swimming nearby and then pulling them to safety using the aid provided.

“Contact in the water may, in fact, happen, and we've been given clearance by the [health] ministry to do that for both swimming instructors and lifeguards while still trying to maintain, where possible, physical distancing of two metres,” Shane says. When it comes to the gravest rescue conditions, when someone is unconscious or at the bottom of a pool, not much has changed for guards. “You’ve just got to go in, retrieve the person, and get them to the side,” Shane says. However, he notes, those types of rescues are rare. The Lifesaving Society says that fewer than 1 per cent of Canadian drownings take place under lifeguard supervision.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told TVO.org via email that "there is no legislation in Ontario that requires lifeguards to maintain physical distancing while performing their lifeguard duties or while training," adding, "Lifeguards should ensure physical distancing precautions are followed to the best extent possible."

Pools in most of Hamilton and Niagara have reopened as recurring heatwaves create a need for cooling and people seek outdoor activity after months of isolation. Beaches have been especially busy throughout southern Ontario, leading to concerns about crowding and bad behaviour. Since late April, the Lifesaving Society has been sharing resources and conducting webinars to ensure that pool and waterfront operators are on the same page when it comes to hygiene and safety practices. In Hamilton, the Lifesaving Society’s guide and consultation with local public-health officials formed the basis of the city’s reopening plan for public pools, says Melissa Dale, a district manager in the recreation department: “We took their recommendations and we worked with public health and identified what we're doing with our staff in terms of training.”  

Neither Shane nor Dale thinks the back-to-basics approach outlined in the new Lifesaving Society guidelines should be all that difficult for guards to adapt to when conducting rescues. Dan Konior, who supervises lifeguards at several Hamilton swimming pools, agrees: “I don't think it's been too much of a challenge, so much as a change of mind frame, a different way of thinking about a rescue at a national lifeguard level.” 

“Now it's a lot more of communicating,” Dale says. “‘How are you doing? How are you feeling? Can you take a couple deep breaths?’ At what point are they putting on their mask and their gloves, their personal protective equipment? And when do they need to use the trauma kit located on every pool deck?” She says that trauma kits are packages of personal protective equipment that can be brought out if a guard needs to administer high-contact first aid, such as CPR. Kits contain gowns and face shields — typically, lifeguards would use only gloves and masks.

Lifeguards need several qualifications and more than 130 hours of training to become certified by the Lifesaving Society. Those qualifications need to be recertified every few years; depending on where they work, guards may undergo tens of hours of employer-specific training each year. In Hamilton, lifeguards underwent about four hours of training to learn the new procedures, Dale says. That included onsite and in-water work to go over new rescue procedures, and instruction in maintaining cleanliness and physical distancing within the facilities. 

Hamilton is running only leisure swim at its pools right now, meaning a rope divides the deep and shallow ends and there’s no set direction for people to swim in. This, Konior says, has led to some friction: “We're having to do a lot of work educating the public on the need for flexibility and understanding that if somebody is where you thought you were going to go, well, now you're going to have to go somewhere else from the pool, because it's a very fluid situation. Really, I think that's the biggest learning curve from the training to the practicality.”

Shane agrees that problems arising from physical distancing may be the biggest challenges guards will face this summer but adds that education can be provided online and in facilities before people even start swimming. “Trying to ensure that people maintain physical distancing is not the role of a lifeguard, or shouldn't be the role of the lifeguard,” he says. “A lifeguard should be supervising bathers to ensure they don't get into trouble and, if they do, be able to respond to prevent incidents.”  

In Hamilton, Dale says, the city has overstaffed slightly “to make sure that staff can also assist in educating the public on physical distancing, which I think is working out really well.” Konior says that, since guards rotate positions and take time off the pool deck to cool off and regain their focus, they can do that public-relations work while not actively guarding. 

According to Shane, beach lifeguards (which the City of Hamilton does not employ) face heightened pressures compared to pool lifeguards. “It's a challenging environment. And it's because there's no one at the front door who can control entry like you can have a swimming pool.” 

One way the Lifesaving Society recommends keeping guards safe is by spacing them out in pool offices, which are typically small and crowded, Shane says. In Hamilton, Dale notes, pool offices were checked to see whether staff could properly distance; if not, adaptations were made. For instance, in some facilities, guards are using viewing galleries (now closed to the public) as office space. 

“If I'm being perfectly honest, I've been pleasantly surprised by how well this has gone so far — knock on wood,” Konior says. “Our staff has been very receptive. They've been very understanding, and they've been met for the most part by members of the public who are very understanding and appreciative of just being able to resume the service.”

This article has been updated with comment from the Ministry of Health.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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