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.


  1. Haha, pool lifeguards are all tools. I've never put faith in someone ten times weaker in the water than me. Here at UW, they have the pool guards switch chairs every 15 min to keep them awake.

    However, there does exist a different breed - one of my old teammates did helicopter drops and jetski rescues at some of the most dangerous beaches in the world, which is just savage.

  2. I love your blog and am a regular reader. It never ceases to amaze me how economists think and analyze even the most mundane things. Cracks me up!

    For example here's how non-economist me reacted to the same scenario (which has happened several times in the past). I wanted to know how alive I would be if it were a real drowning. So I simulated my distress when I thought they were least paying attention. Happy to say that they were (far more than I realized), and I was happy to swim there again. Its just a less rigorous/methodical mathematical approach to a scenario is all...:-)

  3. pragzz,

    I applaud your empirical method, but you need to try that trick 100 times before you could start to claim that lifeguards are "always" paying attention. Although academics can be quite lazy about doing a real-world check, my theorizing is mainly about the "marginal" effects, i.e., what kind of behavior is encouraged/discouraged by changing one little item. (BTW, I agree on your mathematical caveats: Precise answers based on calculations that depend on assumed parameters are not only useless but can be dangerously used/abused.)

  4. I am gonna comment here from a personal (female) economist's point of view :-) , rather than give a thorough economic evaluation.

    * Dutch life guards - they are on the look out in public swimming pool, mainly busy telling people in a front crawl lane not to swim breaststroke! Pool is half the Olympic size and too shallow for anyone to drown in there anyway.
    * During a master swimming session, no lifeguards, presuming we can take care of ourselves in the pool!
    * How about drowning in a canal?? Dutch policemen do not have much to do anyway, hence busy catching cyclists (mainly tourists) in Leidsestraat (where you have people, trams, dogs, bikes and God knows what/whom else on a street ten meter wide) and rescuing drowning dogs from canals. Rescuing drowning dogs from canals is a major rescue operation that involves police, divers, fire brigade, the whole neighbourhood watching and accidental passersby. I have to check statistics on drowning drunken English tourists in the canals of Amsterdam. Another major rescue operation is getting bikes out of the canals (number per year?).
    * Message to take home - send Dutch life guards to the US university pools and bring those US lifeguards to Amsterdam - it's a win-win situation!!
    * Also, check Levitt (Freakonomics) and the number of kids that drown in private pools - parents worry more about sending a kid to a neighbour who has a gun, but not so worried about sending a kid to a neighbour who has a swimming pool. Statistics says that roughly 550 children under the age of 10 drown each year (the likelihood of death by pool is 1 in 11,000), whereas roughly 175 children under the age of 10 die each year from guns (the likelihood of death by gun is 1 in million-plus). The steps to prevent children from drowning are straightforward: a watchful adult, a fence around the pool, a locked back door, etc. While a few swimming pool precautions can save around 400 lives in a year, but they are not really interesting from a marketing point of view, look at this statistics: child-resistant packaging saves around 50 lives a year, flame-retardant pajamas (10 lives), keeping children away from airbags in cars (less than 5), safety draw-strings on children's clothing (2 lives).

  5. you're a tool deborah!

  6. first of all i think you are an ASS,
    here's why, my son did zjunior Guards at 13, he's now 16 and has completed his Guard training last Summer he works his butt of all this summer, serious how many kids do you think are responsible enough to carry the responsibility over other people (kids') lives ???
    plenty, it's not that easy to get your license, out of the 22 people signed up, 7 graduated.
    He does weekly drills, as well as practices they do amongs them selves, the have switch duty's every 10 minutes, and i'd like to see you sit out in the california heat all day, and stay allert, wich he does.

    I'd trust him and his co-workers any time to save me or my younger kids, should I need to.
    HOWEVER most times a kid needs saving it's some stupid parent who doesn't watch their kids while they are laying out in the sun, trying to get a tan, or they're too busy on the phone yappin' it up.
    I sure hope you think twice about opening your mounth nex time, and I pray you never have to deal with a drowning up-close.
    Have a safe swim day.

  7. Hi Annet --

    I am sure that your son is a diligent lifeguard. Too bad that they are not all like him. My point is that lifeguards have weak incentives to watch swimmers. Some (like your son) overcome those extrinsic incentives with their own, intrinsic motivations.

    Some priests are pedophiles; many are not. The difference is determined by intrinsic motivation.

  8. Hi! I'm a 17 year old girl, and began life guarding at 15. I'm sad to say that at both pools that I have worked at, as well as the pool that I regularly swim at, the lifeguards didn't pay a whole lot of attention. I was very unpopular in my workplace because 1) i was the new kid, the Rookie, fresh out of training. 2) i was a stickler for ALL the rules and regulations and was often the one reminding my manager of a broken piece of equipment or a neglected piece of paperwork.

    Most of the guards that I worked with were in it for the money, the tan, and the opportunity to flirt half naked without being called "permiscuous". I was one of very few lifeguards that I knew who payed attention constantly. Admittedly though, it's very difficult to effectively monitor a pool when you are basically working by yourself. Inservice training should be a more frequent thing, and I agree, that maybe surprise drills would convince lifeguards (especially young ones, teen, like myself) of the importance of what they're supposed to be doing. Unlike most, when I receive my certification, followed by a job offer, I considered the fact that I was officially responsible for people's lives for 8 hours a day, every day.

  9. The lifeguards on duty at our athletic club were always reading books. As a cost cutting measure, they were replaced by a large sign that reads "No Lifeguard On Duty."

  10. Excuse me, but most jobs are protected by liability insurance. And anyway, some people just can't be rescued and revived ( sudden death)

    And even the people who are saved may sue.

  11. What does most jobs are protected by liability insurance mean? That the worker is protected from being fired? That there is insurance in case you die? If the latter, then -- as I pointed out in the OP -- that's hardly helpful to the dead swimmer.

    And, yes, I agree that it's hard to rescue dead people and/or people with hyperactive lawyers (let's drown the lawyers!)


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