by Craig Sears, President and Founder
Many associations struggle with this question. Before we answer, we need to establish the difference between a lifeguard and a pool attendant. The primary role of a lifeguard is patron safety, which includes responding to accidents and preventing them by enforcing safety rules. Lifeguards must be certified by the American Red Cross or another comparable certifying agency. Staffing the appropriate number of lifeguards is vital to ensuring proper coverage of your patrons.
When on duty and providing surveillance, lifeguards have a legal duty to act when they become aware of an emergency. This is a critical difference between a lifeguard and pool attendant. Because surveillance is the lifeguard’s primary duty, it cannot be interrupted by performing the tasks that an attendant would normally do.
The primary role of a pool attendant or monitor is to control access to the facility: turn away non-members, enforce community guest policy, and close the facility in the event of a safety concern such as contamination, broken glass in the pool area, or electrical storm. Both attendants and lifeguards may also have some secondary maintenance duties. However, attendants are not required to be trained in CPR, First Aid or rescue skills. From a liability perspective, residents should understand the role of the pool attendant so they do not expect the attendant to do more than they are trained and capable of doing, and legally required to do. In addition, pool attendants are not security guards.
Let’s take a look at five key criteria to consider when answering our question.
Size and features of your pool
As a general rule of thumb, the larger your pool and the more features it contains, the more likely you need a lifeguard. Pools with fun features tend to also attract non-residents, particularly if your community’s pool amenities are significantly nicer than those of other nearby communities or clearly visible when driving past. This could necessitate a pool attendant.
If your community pool has a diving board or a slide, it is advisable to staff a lifeguard during open hours. Your insurance carrier may require you to have a lifeguard. Georgia state code, as well as most county codes, requires two lifeguards (or one lifeguard and one attendant) for operating any slide that is longer than 30 feet. Although this part of the code is not often enforced, it could be used by a plaintiff’s attorney to paint the community in a bad light if an injury occurred on premises and the community was not in compliance.
Most new community pools are shallow, 5 feet deep or less. Insurance companies are less likely to require any staff in these cases, especially without play structures and features. Shallow water gives the illusion of safety, but in actuality most drowning and diving injuries occur in shallow water.
Splash pads typically do not require staff, because drowning is nearly impossible. However, if they receive heavy usage or include climbing structures, a lifeguard might be needed to control horseplay and prevent injury.
Size of community/ number of residents
In general, smaller communities (100 homes or less) require less enforcement of safety rules and policies at the pool, particularly if the pool is shallow and without features. For large communities with busy pools, both an attendant and lifeguards are recommended, regardless of depth.
Age demographics of residents
For communities full of young families, lifeguards are highly recommended. It is also important to remind parents that lifeguards are not babysitters; parents cannot abdicate responsibility once inside the pool fence. In fact, parental supervision is even more critical in the pool area to prevent accidents. Lifeguards are a layer of protection, not a guarantee against drowning and injury.
College age and young professional communities benefit from a pool attendant, as they are most likely to have issues with glass in the pool area, residents who bring in too many friends, and large parties that can get out of hand. For large parties, the community could require the party sponsor to hire lifeguards as an extra precaution.
Retiree communities rarely need pool attendants, but might benefit from a lifeguard, as they are more likely to experience a medical emergency in the pool area.
Of course money and budget control what level of staffing is possible. The cost to staff a lifeguard or attendant is usually the same, as their pay structure is similar. Given the trend of rising wages and dwindling applicants for summer jobs (due to increases in internships, sports programs, camps, vacations, mission trips, and other commitments), expect lifeguard and attendant costs to continue rising for the foreseeable future.
Some communities hire and staff their own lifeguards and attendants, which is not advisable. In addition to the headaches of staff recruitment and management, these communities also assume the duties of payroll processing and full liability for any incidents that occur while the staff is working on site. That includes not only patron accidents but injuries on the job, which become work comp claims. These communities would be better off paying a pool management company to staff a reduced schedule of hours or have no staff at all.
Community priorities and usage
Your community priorities and usage may change over time. For instance, during the recent housing recession, many communities battled high delinquency rates. Staffing an attendant to control access to the pool is a highly effective method for collecting association dues. Key fob / key card access systems are the next most effective. However, patrons can still prop or hold the gate open to allow in non-residents.
Your pool usage will vary throughout the season and from year to year. A great way to combat rising staffing costs is to reassess your community’s staffing needs every few years and adjust accordingly. Key fob/card systems can also provide valuable usage information to help you determine if staffing should be reduced or added during different times of the pool season. This helps you maximize the value of your staffing dollars.
When changing your staffing schedule, make sure your insurance company covers all periods of time and “swim at your own risk” if your pool is open without staff.
Using these evaluation criteria, you can determine the most efficient way to staff your pool or not.