In Plain Sight: why do lifeguards not see a drowning person?

What causes a pool lifeguard to overlook a drowning victim even if they are in plain sight?

We watch, time and time again, CCTV footage of a lifeguard or swimmer staring straight at a person in difficulty in the water, but doing nothing about it and just walking or swimming on by.

According to Tom Griffiths from the Aquatic Safety and Research Institute, this behaviour is a phenomenon called the Complex Quadriplex of Lifeguard Blindness.

In his research, Tom describes four factors that, when combined, can leave a lifeguard blinded to a body under the water. He explains that lifeguards around the pool may see the victim, but their brains do not allow them to compute what is happening.

The four contributing factors that every parent and swimmer should be aware of are:

External distractions – it’s called the RID factor which stands for recognition, intrusion and distraction. If a person drowns while a lifeguard is on duty, it is likely due to this…failure to recognise the drowning victim’s instinctive drowning response; secondary duties have intruded on the primary role of pool surveillance (next time you are at the pool, observe what the lifeguard is doing and you’ll quickly understand this point); and lifeguards are distracted from surveillance.

Internal noise – the thoughts and emotions that every human will experience; just like daydreaming or starring into the middle distance. This, according to Tom, is very difficult to manage.

Physical conditions of the pool – these are the conditions that physically disguise a body that is underwater, such as reflection, refraction and the ripple effect.

Cognitive blindness (emotions) – people don’t see what they do not expect or want to see. Lifeguards do not go to work expecting to save a drowning person and as a result are delayed in their response due to disbelief or denial.

Poseidon drowning detection was developed to assist and complement lifeguards, who are after all, only human. Technology provides surveillance at all times across every inch of the pool (above and under the water) and very quickly alerts the lifeguard when a person is drowning.

It is an added layer of protection which is badly needed in public pools here in Australia.

For more information about Tom Griffith’s research visit

And to watch a video of a situation in a pool where people and lifeguards do not see a drowning boy, click here:



Did you just ‘officially’ drown?

For many years, the definition of drowning was confusing. Additional terms to describe the type of drowning only added to the confusion.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), drowning is a major global health problem and in 2005 it moved to redefine ‘drowning’, with consensus given to removing terms like wet, dry, active, passive, silent, and secondary drowning. The definition was simplified, so there would be no confusion around whether a person had ‘drowned’ or not.

WHO’s definition of drowning is: the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid. Drowning outcomes should be classified as: death, morbidity and no morbidity – but all are considered “drowning”.

If you have suffered respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid – regardless of the outcome – you have officially ‘drowned’ and should be recorded as a drowning statistic.

The main reason for the change in definition was the growing misconception that if someone was resuscitated poolside, they would make a full recovery and we could all breathe easy. If only that were true. All too often many of these people suffer permanent disability, requiring 24/7 medical care for the rest of their lives. While the drowning may not be ‘fatal’, the devastation is acute.

In Australia, there is still limited reporting of drownings in our public pools and no central register to understand just how many people are drowning in community pools. If people are resuscitated, taken to hospital and later released, there is very little record-keeping, incident-reporting or follow-up.

Based on general hospital data, it is estimated that on average 65 people drown in public and holiday resort style pools every year in Australia. But how many of these people fall into the categories of death, morbidity and no morbidity, is still not clear.

That’s why we would like to see a Central National Register of Drownings in Australia, with clear reporting around where the drowning occurred, the age of the person and the outcome.

The Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report for 2017 puts the average cost of just ONE FATAL DROWNING at $4.2 million; which begs the question…what is the cost (economic, social and emotional) of just one drowning where the person has suffered permanent injury requiring permanent medical care?

We think it’s time local, state and federal government in Australia cared a little more about ensuring they have access to accurate data, so they can better understand the true toll drowning is having on this country.

It’s not just the young who drown…Keeping Australian seniors safe in our public pools

  • The number of people 65 and over is projected to double from 3.2 million people (14% of the population) in 2012 to 6.8 million (20%) by 2040 (Aust. Bureau Statistics)
  • In 2017 there were 70 drowning deaths in this age group – a 21% increase on last year (Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report)
  • Royal Life Saving Australia puts the average cost of one fatal drowning at $4.2 Million.

Do you like to visit the local pool to do laps, keep fit and soak up the sunshine? Maybe a trip to the local public pool is part of the daily routine of your aging Mum or Dad?

Our public aquatic facilities provide a great way for seniors to engage in regular low impact activity and stay mentally and physically strong. It’s also a good way to remain socially connected with friends who enjoy the same pursuits.

Seniors usually visit the pool in off peak times – after the early morning rush and before the school kids hit the pool for lessons. Unfortunately, this is also the time when there are not as many lifeguards on the pool deck, due to the lower ratios of people in the pool.

The 2017 Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report has identified a 21% increase on last year in drowning deaths among people aged 65 years and over. There were 70 drowning deaths in this age group across the 12 months. This is an alarming increase. Are more people in this age group drowning in public pools, because more people in this age group are using the pools?

Australia’s population is aging. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of people 65 and over is projected to double, from 3.2 million people (14 percent of the population) in 2012 to 6.8 million (20 percent) by 2040.

Our public pools need to be aware of the aging demographic of their patrons and put in place the necessary level of care and due diligence in safety planning and protocols.

People drown quietly and quickly and it can be very hard to detect them on the pool floor. Time is the main factor when it comes to saving a person’s life before permanent injury or death. A lifeguard has just 30 seconds in total to detect and perform a rescue before the danger zone. When there’s no lifeguard on deck, the chances of that occurring dramatically reduce.

So, what can governments and aquatic facilities do?

If you look around the world, more facilities are installing drowning detection technology in public pools to ensure 100% surveillance of the pool every minute of the day. If a person is drowning, alarms will sound within 10 seconds, alerting the lifeguards as to the exact position of the person in the pool so an immediate rescue can occur.

The aim is to achieve the ‘gold standard’ in pool supervision. This involves layering the levels of supervision to include lifesavers alongside 100% surveillance of the pool via computer vision.

These systems are saving lives every day in public pools around the world. The cost of installing a system of this nature is less than 2% of the cost to build a new public pool, so why is it not compulsory?

Royal Life Saving Australia calculates that the average cost of one fatal drowning sits at $4.2 million. The cost of installing life-saving drowning technology in our public pools represents around just 3.5% of this economic cost.
Now consider the cost of a non-fatal drowning – someone who may have been rescued and resuscitated, but not fast enough, already suffering permanent brain injury requiring 24-hour medical care over many years. This cost is too great to be calculated accurately at this stage.

While government’s mull over this, there are some things you can do now if you are over 65 and love to swim.

  1. Swim with a buddy and make sure you are both watching out for each other constantly
  2. As you enter the pool, make yourselves known to the lifeguard and ask that they keep an extra keen watch on you while you swim
  3. Next time you’re talking to your local government member, ask them why your local pool is not using the latest technology in drowning detection to save the lives of their constituents.

Drowning is preventable, but right now, too many people are drowning in Australia’s public pools across all age groups, with seniors a particularly growing concern.


Queensland pools make a splash at ALFAQ awards

Champions of Queensland’s leisure and aquatics industry were recognised for standout achievements and their commitment to excellence at the first Australian Leisure Facilities Association Queensland (ALFAQ) Awards held recently.

The inaugural Jonas Leisure Facility of the Year Award went to Milne Bay Aquatic and Fitness Centre in Toowoomba for its outstanding water safety programme and commitment to their community and staff.

Other award finalists included:

  • Kawana Aquatic Centre (Sunshine Coast) for its versatility and strong elite sports program
  • Yeronga Park Pool (Brisbane) for its outstanding community programs
  • Newmarket Olympic Pool (Brisbane) for its technological and design improvements which led to a large increase in visitor numbers over the year.

Jonas Leisure sponsored the inaugural awards which were introduced by ALFAQ to recognise the hard-working people and organisations behind Queensland’s leisure and aquatic facilities and for the opportunities they provide for people to get active and enjoy themselves.

Unlike other states, Queensland previously lacked industry recognition for these facilities and individuals and the Board of ALFAQ has introduced the awards to address this.

The first Orimatech Award for Excellence was also awarded at the event, to recognise outstanding levels of individual career achievement. The award went to Shelley Douyere, currently responsible for several of Queensland’s pools as Managing Director of Multi-Level Sports.

Shelley’s longstanding work with local communities to encourage greater participation and develop aquatics programs for everyone from beginners to elite athletes, was recognised in this award.

Over a 40-year career, Shelley has developed learn to swim programs and instigated a number of targeted programs to include and build swimming confidence in mature-aged people, refugees and parents of under six-month old babies.

Heath Rackley of City Venue Management on the Gold Coast was the other finalist for this award.

Congratulations to all 2017 award winners.

Maytronics Media & Communications

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