The 10/20 Water Park Rule

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

The 10/20 Water Park Rule

And Other Smart Life Saving Ideas For Your Business

In my previous article I outlined some of the lessons I learned from operating a water park in the shadows of Disney. I also spoke about my own experiences working directly with the water parks at Walt Disney World while at The Disney Institute. This week I wanted to talk about the business of lifeguarding, and its messages to any of us in our own organizations who must manage or care for others.

Resort guests enjoying the pool at Disney's Polynesian Resort.

There is a rule in lifeguarding common to most pools and water park facilities. It's called the 10/20. As a lifeguard, you should be able to spot anyone in trouble within 10 seconds. And you should be able to reach that individual within 20 seconds. That means that someone should not be in trouble for more than 30 seconds. As a park manager, you should adjust staffing based on that criteria. The more swimmers in the pool, the more you guards you need to be able to survey and access everyone in the pool.

I like that philosophy, because it ties to the business world. In Corporate America I meet many managers and ask them how many report directly to them. I'm astonished when I hear numbers in the dozens or more. How can you meet the individual needs of so many employees? I think business needs a 10/20 rule. Managers should always be accessible to their employees. They should be able to hear the needs of their employees within a reasonable time frame, and should be able to respond to those needs in much the same manner. It doesn't mean anything to have an open door policy, if employees have to stand in line to get to you.

Here a guard is positioned at the family pool at Disney's Grand Floridian resort closest to the most vulnerable location--slide exit.

We also had a whistle system where I worked at Water Mania. That system isn't quite as uniform across organizations, but most water parks and pools have something comparable. One whistle meant you were jumping in the pool to rescue someone. Two whistles were a non-emergency, but required a roaming supervisor to handle the situation so the lifeguard could focus on their pool assignment. A three-whistle blow was a life-threatening emergency. That meant that not only was management needed as in the other whistle blows, but that parametics needed to be called and an EMT needed to respond immediately to the situation.

I'm glad as park director I didn't have too many three-whistle days. But some of those whistles were serious and even tragic. I did deal more commonly with another whistle type. That was a long whistle call I myself made when the park needed to close for incoming thunderstorms. I had more than my share of those whistle calls. It's Orlando, after all. Handling hundreds of guests who wanted a refund after they just showed up to swim, was a powerful experience in service recovery. I'll save that story for another day. What I will say is that I liked the philosophy of the whistle system. I'm not advocating whistles. But I do think that organizations need their own signals or expressions that immediately bring the help and support of management. Too often front line workers are hesitant to ask for help. How can workers be focused on their work, if managers aren't available when they need help the most?

Guards on duty at Disney's Polynesian Resort.

In the aquatics business there are two well-known training and licensing approaches. The first of these is the American Red Cross. Water Mania, the park I operated, used Red Cross as do many other parks, community pools and beaches. The American Red Cross certifies trainers and provides training themselves. A typical program is 30 to 37 hours and provides instruction on surveillance skills, rescue skills, first aid training, and CPR. All guards went through this program, and then we supplemented with additional in-service training and drills throughout the year.

The second training and licensing approach came through Jeff Ellis & Associates. Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, and all of the WDW Resort pools and aquatic facilities utilize Eliis & Associates. It is an expensive approach, and that is why I couldn't convince the owners of Water Mania to go with it. Yet I believe Ellis is the gold standard when it comes to lifeguarding. Like Red Cross, they train guards. But they go far and beyond that. That's because they don't see themselves in the business of lifeguarding per se. Rather, they see themselves in the business of aquatic risk management. They stay involved long after the initial training. For example, they come into facilities like Disney's and constantly test guards throughout the year as to whether they are being vigilant. In fact, they have the power to pull a guard off the stand at Disney that doesn't measure up to their standards. When you think about it-that is an amazing notion that an outside contractor has that ability to determine the fate of Disney's own Cast Members.

And the results are even more outstanding. In the last five years alone those facilities covered by Ellis & Associates have had zero drownings! In round numbers, that's about half a billion swimmers, to include those who have stayed on Disney properties. That's far above the standard established by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. They established a goal of reducing drowning deaths to 1.9 per 100,000 population a few years back. In 2000, it was 1.7 per 100,000 Americans. Typically, anywhere else, a comparable population would have seen approximately 8500 drownings over the same 5 year time period. And yet there was not one drowning!

Guards in training at Disney's Polynesian Resort.

But as I mentioned, there is a catch: Ellis & Associates is expensive. Very expensive. Especially compared to American Red Cross. In fact, it's said that a year or two ago some new Disney executive tried to pull the plug on their arrangement with Ellis. It didn't take long before they learned from the rest of management that Ellis was worth it. Why? Because Ellis & Associates are your best friends when you're hauled into court with a lawsuit. You see, they are the ones who will come in and defend how well trained your employees are. They will have updated logs on hand. They will demonstrate their own lifesaving techniques. They will show video of the guards performing red ball drills (an exercise where a red ball is thrown into the pool and the lifeguard must respond as if that is a drowning victim). They are the ones who can save your hide when you're about to be taken for millions of dollars.

It takes a unique perspective to expend so many resources on seasonal, part-time employees in a business known for high turnover. But if that kind of perspective could be applied in our own businesses, we could probably see amazing results as well. Of course, to do so takes a real paradigm change. On one occasion I heard an individual say, "What if we spend all of this money on training and developing our people, and they end up leaving?" My response was: "What if don't spend any time or money on training and developing our people and they stay?" For us, whatever our business is, we should ask: "What is the value of training and developing your employees?" Are we willing to make the investment in others? The answer to that question is ultimately what makes some businesses sink or swim.