Skip to main content

Eternal Vigilance

By Scott Hamilton, MD
April 13, 2023
Hamilton Blog Headshot Updated 12.21.21

My oldest daughter is an Air Traffic Controller (ATC). No, those aren't the guys with orange wands who guide planes to the gate. These are professionals who sit at radar scopes and instruct aircraft on what altitude and direction to fly to avoid potential conflicts between planes. This requires so much concentration that, for every 40 minutes at the scope, controllers take 40 minutes away to rest and recharge their brains.

The science of brain concentration dictates these work and rest periods for ATCs and lifeguards as well. It also applies to the most common amateur lifeguards: parents. Lifeguarding is brain work that involves several “dimensions.”

First, the guard (parent, babysitter or neighbor) needs to, of course, pay attention. This doesn't mean just watching, but being free from distractions like phones, conversations, and other kids showing off their cannonballs. The second dimension is proximity. For toddlers, this means being within reach so you can readily snatch them from the water. This doesn't mean lounging at the far side of the pool in your jeans and shoes, reluctant to get wet if a child goes under.

The third dimension is continuity: always being attentive and close. Again, no phones! Also, no going inside for “just a few minutes” to get a sandwich and beer. I've seen too many children die when “just a few minutes” becomes one minute too many. Getting the beer is a no-no in itself, as alcohol impedes attention and the ability to stay on task.

The last dimension is readiness to rescue and resuscitate. The lifeguard needs to be able to get the child out of the pool and perform CPR if necessary (more on this below). Summer is coming. Be ready to properly watch and share the duty with others to keep your brain alert.

When our cousins had a house with a pool, they had strict rules for their girls about playing in the yard. They had to put on a life jacket first. Some of the girls first words, in order to go outdoors, were “Jacket? Jacket?” as they held their arms up to slip it on.

As we discussed above, watching children in pools this summer requires constant attention. It requires proximity to the kids so you can snatch them out of trouble. It requires continuity in attention and proximity—no distractions like phones or beer runs. Finally, it requires some training.

The first training you'll need is knowing how to swim. Every summer, there are stories about kids who drown and adults who also drown attempting a rescue. If the child is large enough to drag you under when clinging to you in desperation, you'll need some equipment too. Lifeguards carry flotation devices, which they toss to floundering swimmers to tow them in rather than getting wrapped up by panicking victims and carried to the bottom. If it's your own pool, have a life ring with a rope.

You should also know CPR. If, God forbid, a child goes under and becomes unconscious, CPR is lifesaving. Most drowning “saves” occur when victims are revived waterside. The longer the child goes without oxygen, the worse their outcome—brain injury or death. Rarely are drowning children saved by EMS or emergency departments; the issue is usually already decided by the time the ambulance arrives.

The best prevention is not to have kids in trouble in the first place. Have others help you watch them. Put jackets or floaties on non-swimmers. Secure the pool with toddler-proof gates and fencing on all four sides. Avoid tragedy; be sober and vigilant!