Staying Alert: Lifeguard Attentiveness and Best Practices

One of the leading causes of death among American youth occurs in a setting most think of as stress-free and fun: the pool. Although typically surveilled by lifeguards, the crowded, chaotic nature of a pool may not allow those guards on duty to pick up on every emergent or potentially dangerous situation requiring their assistance. As a lifeguard myself, I was eager to conduct a literature review on this topic during a recent internship at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. My findings are presented here.

It is vital for the safety of the pool that a lifeguard’s eyes do not leave the pool, and that they are able to check on every area of their designated scanning zone at regular intervals. In theory, this is easy, as it is the lifeguard’s job to prevent harmful situations before they occur and solve the problem should they occur. However, a hot, loud, social environment such as a swimming pool does not discriminate in whose attention it grabs. Friends walking by sharing a word, loud music, and the hours a lifeguard remains stationary in the summer heat are all competing to snatch away a guard’s attention from where it belongs. However small these events may seem, they could prove potentially disastrous should something go wrong, which can happen within the blink of an eye.

An observational study by Dr. David Schwebel regarding lifeguard attentiveness found risky behaviors performed by swimmers saw a significant decrease pre- and post-intervention. The intervention aimed to educate lifeguards on just how quickly something could go wrong in a pool and allowed them to overcome distractions. Presented in the form of a continuing education-style meeting, Schwebel and his team described to the lifeguards how frequently risky behaviors such as running, jumping near others, or diving into shallow water occurred at their pool and how often these behaviors went unnoticed by distracted lifeguards. Combined with an anecdote regarding a fatal drowning nearby and reinforcement of American Red Cross scanning techniques, the researchers seemed to be successful in improving the guards’ attentiveness.


Attention is a multi-faceted psychological concept that includes top-down processing as well as bottom-up processing. Bottom-up processing refers to one’s perception of their surroundings with sole regard to external factors, while top-down means that one uses pre-determined ideas to shape how they view what is around them. When applied to lifeguarding, bottom-up could be exemplified by a lifeguard perceiving the pool as a whole, scanning for incidents in random fashion. In other words, scanning without structure. While this can be effective, relying solely on external sources to grab one’s attention is not conducive to efficient lifeguarding. A lifeguard must be proactive. I believe that reliance on this method and failure to practice intentional attentiveness is what allows for the distractions that lifeguards often experience. Given that drowning kills approximately 4,000 people a year (25% of which are children), we cannot afford distraction.

A better method for maintaining alertness is top-down processing, which has to do with an individual acknowledging information they have committed to memory and using it to form opinions and hypotheses about their surroundings. In the context of lifeguarding, this could mean thinking about the signs of swimmer distress and risky behaviors and then actively seeking them out while scanning.

The processing of task-relevant visual stimuli is more efficient when practicing top-down attention, yet during most experiences there is competition between the simultaneously occurring bottom-up and top-down processes.

Neurobiologists in Poland have measured the brain activity of participants faced with a task requiring their attention towards visual stimuli. The results indicate that, because of a person’s limited attention capacity, there is an inverse relationship between top-down and bottom-up processing. When one drops, the other rises and vice versa. In a setting where the lives of others may be at stake, it is important to eliminate this competition in order to achieve maximum attentiveness. Attention is a cognitive process that can be strengthened by habit building, so this may be done volitionally.

Best Practices

Combining tactics that I have used during my two years of lifeguarding at an extremely busy pool with what I learned about attention through a thorough literature review, I’ve created a 4-step approach that I believe to be a helpful method of navigating a busy pool in the safest way possible.

Step 1Identify the objective: get eyes on every swimmer at a regular interval. The second a guard’s vision leaves one swimmer and goes to the next, that swimmer is at a greater risk. Signs of distress, such as lack of horizontal progress and bobbing (moving up and down in the water) need to be seen and recognized to be taken care of. As soon as a lifeguard moves their scan from swimmer to swimmer, the former could be a 4-year-old who, although a competent swimmer, becomes fatigued and begins to drown. Thus, although it is important to thoroughly analyze each swimmer’s behavior, it’s also important to revisit each swimmer in a timely manner.

Step 2Recall the indicators of swimming ability as taught in lifeguard training. This includes, but is not limited to, characteristics such as age and perceived physical health. This will allow the lifeguard to know who they may need to be extra watchful of when scanning.

Step 3Scan in groups. As opposed to counting heads or other scanning methods, I find it helpful to group 5-6 swimmers based on proximity and scan laterally across the pool. Once a group is scanned, analyze each swimmer’s behavior, running through a quick mental checklist of the risky behaviors and signs of swimmer distress taught in lifeguard certification courses. In my experience, doing this in groups expedites the scanning process. If there is no issue, I typically can verify the safety of a group in about 3 seconds before moving onto the next group or swimmer.  By practicing this technique, if an issue occurs in an area the lifeguard isn’t actively scanning, it won’t be long until the guard gets eyes on the swimmer needing assistance and acts accordingly.

Step 4Repeat! To ensure the absolute safety of the pool, it is vital that the lifeguard continuously repeats this process. Once the whole section has been scanned, start over and do it again. It’s also helpful if a guard frequently reminds themselves what they are looking for (risky behaviors and signs of distress) so that it remains at the front of their minds.

I notice that when taking this top-down approach, I am less susceptible to the stream of distractions that can often affect lifeguards. I also notice that doing this seems to make the time go by faster. This approach takes my focus away from the ambience of the pool and places it with the individual swimmers where it should be. To all my fellow lifeguards who read this, I hope this plan can help you remain focused and maintain a safe pool! Lifeguarding can be very fun, but always remember just how important your job is!   

Author Profile

Dylan Skelton
Dylan Skelton is a rising senior at Reagan High School. He is currently completing a clinical research internship with the Department of Implementation Science at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. He intends on studying neuroscience in college and aims to pursue a career in health sciences.

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