Drownings in Lifeguard Pools: Why Submerged Victims Go Unnoticed

Facility Management
Friday, October 20, 2017 -
1:30pm to 2:20pm

Lifeguards are perceived as the premier drowning prevention strategy and expected to recognize and respond to patrons in distress before injury occurs. However, per a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2000 to 2008, 140 fatalities occurred at swimming pools with lifeguards on duty.

Though tragic, these results represent only about 50% of fatalities at lifeguarded pools during that time. (2001 Baullinger, et al.; 1992 Rainey, et al.; 2009 Barss, et al. cited Pelletier, et al. 2011, p. 252) It is estimated that for every drowning death of a child less than 15 years old, there are four non-fatal submersion incidents; two of which result in release from emergency departments and two more that require hospitalization. (2004 CDC MMWR cited Pelletier, et al. 2011 p. 252)

When drownings occur with lifeguards on duty, lifeguards are often accused of being negligent and blamed for the tragedy. But, based on scientific studies conducted during the past two years, lifeguards are frequently positioned where drowning victims cannot be identified while at the surface or on the pool bottom.


Visibility testing was performed to determine what a lifeguard would be able to see based on chair height and position relative to glare from natural and artificial lighting. Initially manikins and silhouettes were used for the testing but results were invalid due to patron response to these tools. Valid testing required the development of a different device.

Investigations have shown that when children drown, after they cease struggling, they may tuck into a fetal position. Toddlers are the smallest children likely to slip away from their caregivers and end up drowning in pools. For these reasons, an anthropometrically accurate device was developed to represent a toddler in the fetal position (length, width, and height) without looking like a submerged child. These devices, referred to as ANGELS (Area Notification Gear for Effective Lifeguard Surveillance) were placed in swimming pools. Testing showed that patrons disregarded the ANGELS and continued to play and swim as though there was nothing unusual on the pool bottom.

ANGELS were placed in a grid pattern at indoor and outdoor pools. Lifeguards were asked to count the number of ANGELS that they could see during various levels of patron activity.
• In scenarios where 25 ANGELS were positioned in the lifeguard’s assigned zone, lifeguards identified 19 to 21 ANGELS.
• In scenarios where 33 ANGELS were positioned in the lifeguard’s assigned zone, lifeguards identified 21 to 27 ANGELS.
• Testing demonstrated that these lifeguards were not properly positioned to identify a submerged victim throughout their entire assigned zone.

During testing, photographs were taken simultaneously from elevations equivalent to lifeguards seated on 3’, 6’, and 8’ tall stands. These photographs provide a frame of reference for understanding the challenges that lifeguards cannot overcome due to positioning.
• Prior to testing, neither lifeguards nor pool management were aware of the lifeguard’s limitations.
• Following testing, lifeguards were repositioned and zones were redefined to improve each lifeguard’s ability to identify drowning victims.

Failing to properly position lifeguards provides a false sense of security to the public and sets lifeguards up to fail. This has resulted in serious injury and death of patrons, extensive emotional trauma to families and staff, and financial hardships for families and organizations.

By incorporating scientific testing for the positioning of lifeguards, the aquatics industry can further reduce the risk of drowning.