5 On Your Side

The science behind why lifeguards aren't always dependable

Posted July 3

— It's easier to feel safe at the pool when lifeguards are on duty, but even supervised pools could come with a surprising risk this summer.

According to a recent study by Consumer Reports, lifeguards only add a layer of protection if their stands are positioned correctly. The study revealed the height of the lifeguard stand is crucial in determining how well guards can keep an eye on swimmers -- and there's science behind it.

From a height of 2.5 feet, it can be difficult to see two children swimming just under the surface of the water, results revealed. However, from a height of 6 to 8 feet, the children were clearly visible.

The science behind why lifeguards aren't always dependable

Consumer Reports says this phenomenon is due to glare off the water and the refraction of light (when light bends as it travels from the water into the air). For this reason, a low position at the edge of a pool can significantly limit the lifeguard's ability to see all areas within the water.

"There are whole regions inside the swimming pool where no one or no thing is entirely visible to the lifeguard sitting at the edge of the swimming pool," said James Dickerson, Consumer Reports Chief Science Officer. "The higher up you go, a larger amount of the space inside the pool is easily visible to the lifeguard sitting or standing at a higher perch."

The American Lifeguard Association suggests lifeguard chairs be 6 to 8 feet in height to give guards a better overall view of the area covered. Additionally, the organization states that stands should be placed in such a way that they allow for full coverage of the swimming area.

Trained, professional lifeguards play a vital role in water safety -- but even when they are on duty, a responsible adult should always monitor children.

"Of course, parents should always be engaged with children when they're at the swimming pool," said Dikerson. "But, beyond that, you should ask the pool management if they've ever done an assessment of the location of the lifeguard stands around the pool."

Experts say everyone should be cautious at the pool and keep a close eye out for swimmers in distress. As you see in this lifeguard rescue video, which went viral online, it can be hard to spot someone who is drowning -- nearby swimmers even missed the signs.

Can you spot the drowning boy?

Even when lifeguards are on duty, question their visibility and keep watch over kids or weak swimmers, because some swimmers in distress aren't able to yell or wave their hands.


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  • Patrick Gentry Jul 4, 1:20 p.m.
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    This should be common sense that propel can drown in water and very quickly. But than again if the people cutting me off a dozen times a day in a school bus lack the common sense to drive safe I doubt they have the common sense to keep an eye on their children at the pool either.

    Than they sue the pool management company and likely get a massive payday.

  • Jeff Freuler Jul 4, 9:41 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread


    Too many parents see the pool and lifeguards as baby sitters. When I was a lifeguard I saw it too many times

  • Ken Ackerman Jul 4, 6:08 a.m.
    user avatar

    I'm not normally critical of reporter's writing, but the title of this article implies (to me at least) that the lifeguards themselves are not dependable rather than how the guard's stand is constructed.

  • Courtney Weaver Jul 3, 11:55 p.m.
    user avatar

    Can I write an article on the science why parents aren't always dependable....

  • Cnc Stone Jul 3, 8:23 p.m.
    user avatar

    I was a certified life guard at myrtle beach in the 80's & 90's for seven years and we were spread to far apart to help each other and the people were known for not listing to commands unless threaten with law enforcement , the biggest part of water safety is common sense and good and caring parents !