Professionals have an obligation to model correct behavior. We are upset if firefighters set forests and houses on fire. Unsettled if police steal or murder. We should be expecting the same standards of correct behavior from aquatics professionals – all of us. Easier said than done, but your individual behavior is watched by far more people than you know, because if you are an ‘expert’, people are watching what you do far more than they are listening to what you say.
Let’s take a quick test. Put your hand on your heart and swear that you have never, ever done at least one of the following:
- swam without a lifeguard nearby;
- traveled in any boat without wearing a lifejacket;
- taken your eyes off your young child for more than 2 minutes;
- not taken the time to read the lengthy safety signs at a public pool or beach; or
- attended a party on or near a beach or pool where alcohol was involved.
(These were pulled from the International Open Water Safety Guidelines.) How did you fare? Probably not very well. Now look at your rationale. There wasn’t any lifeguard when I was swimming off the back of a boat or at a remote beach. It was pontoon boat on a small, calm lake with no traffic – I couldn’t have tipped the boat if I tried – or it was the cross-channel car ferry, life jackets are stowed and only for emergencies. I would never drink and then go near water – well other than a glass of wine before a hot bath…. And of course, I am a strong swimmer/aquatics professional/lifeguard, I know my limits. Those rationales sound pretty reasonable to me.
It’s a difficult balance. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have those rules. There are a lot of safety rules around, and those rules are there for a good reason. If we are going to make people safer around water we need to vigorously push for consistent water safety rules and communicate them in a wide range of media through concerted social marketing campaigns.
But rules aren’t enough. Have you ever exceeded the speed limit? Crossed the street without waiting for a walk signal? It’s human nature to assess a situation, apply information from the brain about the risks, weigh the options, and then make a decision on how to act – often within a split-second and no conscious thought – and sometimes contrary to the rules.
The key is that when our brains weigh the options, they are sifting through lessons that they have learned – through education, experience, and observation. Water safety education is still in it’s infancy. Most of the people who do ‘stupid’ things around water don’t actually know how to act because we haven’t taught them yet, not the way we have taught people to fasten a seatbelt or at least look both ways before you cross the street.
When you are knowledgeable in a field it is blindingly obvious what the safe or ideal behavior should be. It is very easy to forget that it is far from obvious to anyone else. It’s even harder to remember that someone who is an expert (you) will assess the risk differently from someone else who does not have the same physical or mental skills. The 10 year-old boy who hero-worships you. The 13 year-old girl with a crush on the local lifeguard. The 4 year-old boy trying to emulate a superhero. The tired mom watching 4 kids at the pool on a hot day. The teenagers more interested in impressing their peers. The dads who are too cool for rules. And most of all, your own children. You can talk all you want, you can create brilliant education and awareness campaigns, you can lecture and publish and demonstrate – but the biggest impact you can have is to actually walk the talk. Show how water safety should be done.
I know it’s hard, but I can tell you that those most influenced by your behavior watch what you do far more than they listen. I’m not perfect on modeling behavior (I drive too fast….stick shift….with a turbo-charged engine….I will be regretting this when my children turn 16), but when it comes to the basics of all types of safety I make an effort. Which means no texting while driving – ever. No drinking and driving – ever. And yes, wearing a lifejacket even when I’m on a rowboat on a flat calm lake. Telling my good swimmer kids at the pool, ‘if you can’t see me, I can’t see you’, and making an effort to always swim at a guarded beach.
Think about it next time you are on duty, wearing your uniform, or just out with people who know your job is water safety – and aim towards ‘do what I do, and what I say’. You are an ambassador for your profession – take your responsibility seriously and behave with honor.
If you still don’t believe me, watch this video and list all the mistakes that were caught on film – and watched by everyone on that beach, plus another 1,000 people. Hint: lifeguards in IRB’s without lifejackets. Lifeguard in a rip refusing to be rescued – probably because of the culture that doesn’t require lifejackets.