3 May 2008

Lifeguards and Risk

I swam in the university pool yesterday and noticed -- as usual -- that there were many lifeguards (3 or 4), who sat in their cool lifeguard shirts casually watching people go back and forth or chatting with each other.

What happens if I hit my head on the wall and go under? There is what's supposed to happen (lifeguard rescues me) and what I suspect would happen (someone else notices me, calls lifeguard who rescues me OR I drown). I am more interested in the former scenario than the latter scenario, but those chatting lifeguards are worrisome.

How do we shift the odds? Get them used to paying attention.

"Do you guys do rescue drills?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, we do drills. The drowning swimmer wears a red shirt in the cleared pool[!], and we rescue him."

"What about unannounced drills with unmarked drowners in the crowded pool? Maybe 0-2 per week -- to keep you on your toes?"

"No, we don't want to do that."

"Don't you guys want to be the best lifeguards* in the country?"

"Yeah, right."

Oh, well I guess we're done then.

Let's look at the incentives in the pool: We've got lifeguards making $10-12/hr to sit in the sun. Putting out effort (watching carefully) increases their cost relative to the fixed wage they get. The University, which pays their wages, needs to have lifeguards to reduce their expected losses (failed rescues) and insurance premia ("lifeguards on duty"), and it wants those lifeguards to be paying attention. Swimmers do not pay lifeguards but want to be rescued. Note that lifeguards may get extra money for rescuing people, but are unlikely to face prison or bankruptcy if someone drowns. With downside risk shifted to the University -- which will pay -- they can "afford" to kick back and chat with each other.

What we have here is a principal-agent-beneficiary model (University-lifeguard-swimmer), where the lifeguard is supposed to help the swimmer but is being paid/monitored by the University. In these situations (same as in international aid -- and hundreds of other examples), it's harder for the beneficiary to get the principal to monitor the agent than if the beneficiary were monitoring the agent directly (Instead of "No, we don't want to do that," I'd get "yes, sir!")

All I can do is complain to the university, gather other swimmers to do the same and/or contact the insurance company to raise insurance premia if lifeguards are not doing spontaneous rescue practices. I can't criticize the lifeguards, order them to drill, or change their payment scheme. (I could move to a different, swimmer-managed pool, but this problem doesn't go away.)

Bottom Line: When someone is supposed to be "taking care" of you, take a look at who pays them (the real boss) and how much that boss may care about you.

* Note the important exception: Lifeguards who LOVE rescuing people. This intrinsic motivation can make up for poor wages. I am assuming that intrinsic motivation exists, but it does not "take care" of the kicking back problem.